Hamas seen facing long path to end isolation despite new policy

Jerusalem (AFP) - Hamas has softened its stance on Israel after long calling for its destruction, but the Palestinian movement must do more to convince the world to end its isolation, analysts and diplomats said Tuesday.

The Islamist movement, which runs the Gaza Strip, unveiled a new policy document on Monday night ahead of a first face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, whose Fatah party remains at loggerheads with Hamas.

Some analysts see the move as an attempt by Hamas to ease tension with regional allies and assuage hostilities with global powers.

Speculation has also mounted over who will succeed 82-year-old Abbas, whose Fatah movement is based in the occupied West Bank, as Palestinian president.

Hamas is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union, while it has strained relations with many Arab states.

Some diplomats said while the announcement was potentially positive, they would need more to convince them the party had really changed its approach.

"It is a piece of paper. We will see if there is a real shift or if it is window dressing," one Western diplomat said.

While still attacking Israel, the document accepts for the first time pre-1967 armistice lines as a matter of "national consensus" -- in what many interpreted as implicitly accepting the existence of Israel.

Hamas officials however said that it did not amount to a recognition of Israel as demanded by the international community.

The document also says its struggle is not against Jews because of their religion but against Israel as an occupier, with Hamas officials stressing it was a shift.

One Hamas leader, Ahmed Yusef, told AFP the updated charter was "more moderate, more measured and would help protect us against accusations of racism, anti-Semitism and breaches of international law."

However the Islamist movement will still not negotiate directly with Israel and the original hardline 1988 charter will not be dropped, just supplemented, in a move some analysts see as a way of maintaining the backing of hardliners.

Israel rejected the document, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman accusing Hamas of "attempting to fool the world."

Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since 2008 and maintains a crippling blockade on Gaza.

On Tuesday, there were a number of Hamas-organised protests against the decade-long blockade, with a few thousand protesters taking to the streets in different cities.

- Muted response -

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political analyst in Gaza, said the document sought to help improve regional and global relations.

The document made no reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas was a splinter movement.

In 2013, Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in Egypt, and the movement has since been suppressed in several Middle Eastern countries.

"Hamas has been isolated regionally and internationally since the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring and the exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt," Abu Saada said.

"It is about assuring Egypt and the other Arab states there is no relationship between Hamas (and the Brotherhood)."

There was little initial public reaction, either positive or negative, on Tuesday.

The United States, Russia and other global players remained silent, with Arab states remaining largely quiet.

The office of UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov did not comment on the contents of the document.

Another Western diplomat said that as the document did not officially recognise Israel or renounce violence, it would be impossible for them to change position publicly.

Congressman Ed Royce, chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, offered a rare reaction, downplaying the document's significance.

"Until Hamas recognises Israel's right to exist, its words are meaningless. I will see to it that Hamas remains designated a terrorist organisation as long as it continues to launch rocket attacks against Israeli civilians."

A third diplomat based in Israel saw some reason to be positive, but stressed it would be unlikely to lead to any shifts in relations in the short term.

"Diplomats have been pushing for a change to the charter for a long time," he said. "You need extremists to move towards the centre."

Yossi Mekelberg from the Chatham House think tank in London said that while Israel was publicly bullish, some would interpret it as a positive sign.

But he noted the issue had not received extensive coverage in Western media.

"If you look at Europe, it is pretty self-obsessed right now," said Mekelberg, also a professor at Regent's University London. "They are hardly interested in Hamas.

"I think the response from the international community will be that it is a good sign, something to be explored, but we won't see major shifts."

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