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From the River to the Sea

From the River to the Sea

When Hamas revised its charter in 2017, it tapped into the narratives of the global Left–with stunning effectiveness.

Jeffrey Herf

The mass murders by Hamas on October 7 were the outcome of its core ideology, clearly expressed in its founding charter of 1988. That “ideology of mass murder has its origins in the fusion of Nazism and Islamism that first took place in the 1930s and 40s, and then persisted in the Islamist politics of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, of which Hamas is an offshoot. Hamas’ ability to gain supporters, first in the universities, now in the streets, rests as well on its revised charter of 2017, which draws on the anti-Zionism of the secular Left. Hence a close reading of the revised charter, whose language and arguments now echo on campuses and in the streets, is in order. 

The authors of the Hamas charter of 1988 were explicit about their ideological connections to the radical antisemitic conspiracy theories that had emerged in 20th-century Europe, and to the virulent hatred of Jews, Judaism, and therefore Israel that they derived from their anti-modernist Islamist interpretation of Islam. Yet the deadly implications of this document received far too little attention in the mainstream media of the West, despite being easily accessible online in English and German translations. Instead, an objectively pro-Hamas Left began developing among academics in Europe, Britain, and the United States, as became apparent in 2014 during one of Hamas’ attacks on Israel. They found themselves in the peculiar position as leftists of repeating Hamas’ arguments.

They did so because they had adopted the view of Israel that had become the common coin of the international Left since the 1960s. According to that view, the Jewish state is in reality a colonialist and racist endeavor built on the expulsion of the indigenous population in 1948. Relying on that profound misinterpretation of the events surrounding Israel’s founding, they were willing to make common cause with an organization that is profoundly hostile to the modernist values that had long been associated with at least some segments of leftist politics

Seventy years of Soviet and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) propaganda mischaracterizing Zionism and Israel, equally unbalanced UN resolutions, and New Left romance about third-world revolutions had placed Israel on the “wrong” side and the Palestinians on the “right” side of the global divide between oppressors and oppressed. In the course of doing so, a distinctive leftist form of antisemitism, expressed in the language of anti-Zionism and support for armed attacks on Israel, fostered an opening to support not only the secular PLO but also Hamas. In Britain, that support and leftist antisemitism gained political influence in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn won election as the leader of the Labour Party. This bizarre fusion of the Islamist Right and the secular Left was the first time since the Hitler-Stalin pact that leftist organizations made common cause with a movement of the extreme right, and the only time I can recall when they supported a group rooted in religious fanaticism. Their shared antagonism to Israel surmounted the contrasting ideological starting points.

At the same time, the Hamas charter of 1988 remained an embarrassment at least for some leftist and liberal academics and intellectuals, for the anti-Zionist Left in the universities, and for activist organizations of the left. Its celebration of antisemitic conspiracy theories voiced by the Nazi regime was impossible to deny or justify, and its calls to take up arms against the Jews were unequivocal. Its selective quotations from the Koran offered very uncomfortable evidence that Hamas—in the tradition of Islamists from Haj Amin al-Husseini, Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb, all associated with the Muslim Brotherhood—defined Islam as an inherently anti-Jewish religion. For those who thought like Karl Marx that religion was the opiate of the people, the Hamas charter of 1988 revealed that such a theologically induced drug had an Islamic component as well. 

The Rebranding

In 2017, Hamas issued a revised charter, one that implicitly addressed the embarrassments of the 1988 document. On May 1, Patrick Wintour, diplomatic editor of the Guardian, wrote that, 

Hamas has unveiled a new political programme softening its stance on Israel by accepting the idea of a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel in the six-day war of 1967. The new document states the Islamist movement is not seeking war with the Jewish people—only with Zionism that drives the occupation of Palestine. . . . Hamas advocates the liberation of all of Palestine but is ready to support the state [based] on 1967 borders without recognizing Israel or ceding any rights.

The Guardian’s misleading headline dispensed with these ambiguities. It read, “Hamas presents new charter accepting a Palestine based on 1967 borders.” 

For secular leftist anti-Zionists, the revised charter thus offered the possibility of supporting a group that was “only” at war with Zionism but not with “the Jewish people.” Judging from the outburst of “pro-Palestinian” and even specifically pro-Hamas demonstrations and statements signed by hundreds of academics, “writers,” and “artists” in Europe and the United States immediately after the attack of October 7, some even celebrating the terror attacks, the revised charter appears to have accelerated the magical thinking that was evident in 2014. In short, Hamas has been transformed from an organization of the extreme right into a cause of the far left, which explains the calls for an Israeli cease-fire, thus leaving Hamas intact.

To the extent that it was read in seminar rooms and lectures halls, at major newspapers, think tanks, and NGOs, the 1988 charter had served as embarrassing and undeniable evidence that there was, in fact, a connection between Nazism, Islamism, and Hamas. (Unfortunately, too much of the mainstream press ignored the obvious.) The 2017 charter became an effective weapon of political warfare by banishing the most disconcerting evidence and then incorporating Islamist themes of the past within the propaganda of the post-Sixties secular global Left, of which anti-Zionism and antagonism toward Israel had become defining features. 

The 2017 charter begins with a history of Israel that replicates the distortions and deletions that had become the stock-in-trade of Soviet and PLO propaganda for many decades. A tale of the complete innocence of the Palestine Arabs and utter depravity of Zionists, it does not mention that the Arab war of 1948 was begun by the Arab Higher Committee in November 1947, when it rejected the United Nations Partition Resolution, and that five Arab states invaded the new State of Israel the day after it was founded in May 1948. In both cases, the Arab resort to war was an alternative to the United Nations Partition Resolution, which called for the establishment of an Arab as well as a Jewish state in what had been British Mandate Palestine. This now world-famous fiction of Zionist sin and Palestinian innocence offers silence about the support for the establishment of the Jewish state by liberals and leftists in the West and in the Soviet bloc, who saw it as a logical extension of the anti-Nazi and anti-racist passions that had emerged during the war against Nazi Germany. During the Cold War and since, these realities have disappeared in the fog of anti-Israeli propaganda. 

The revised charter attempts to sanitize the earlier version by deleting its absurdities while legitimizing its basic claims in other ways. It eliminates antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jews causing the French Revolution and World War I, but eagerly embraces the anti-Zionist propaganda of the Soviets and the PLO. According to this language, “Palestine is a land that was seized by a racist, anti-human and colonial Zionist project” that was imposed “by force.” Zionist opposition to the British Empire disappears, as does both the Zionists’ acceptance of the United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947 and the Palestinian Arabs’ rejection of it. 

Absent as well from this famous, mistaken retelling of Israel’s founding is any reference to World War II and the Holocaust. Rather than engage in Holocaust denial, inversion, or celebration—all of which had become a feature of Islamist propaganda after World War II—the Hamas authors’ omission implied that this most crushing piece of evidence regarding the consequences of the absence of Jewish statehood had no relevance to global support for the establishment of Israel. Silence about the Holocaust also avoided any embarrassing discussion of the well-documented Islamist collaboration with the Nazis. 

The 2017 document asserts that “the Zionist movement . . . was able with the help of Western powers to occupy Palestine.” Generally, references to “Western powers” of the 1940s are to the United States and Britain—by 1948 the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc were no longer thought of as Western powers. Yet, as I have pointed out in my most recent book, Israel’s Momentit was the governments of the Soviet bloc more than the United States and Britain who in 1947–48 supported the founding of the Jewish state. 

Beginning with the British White Paper of 1938, throughout World War II and the Holocaust, and from 1945 to 1948, the British government opposed Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine and abstained on the vote for the UN partition resolution. While President Harry Truman supported the partition plan and recognized the new State of Israel, the U.S. State Department and Defense Department both opposed the establishment of the Jewish state and imposed an arms embargo that disadvantaged the Jews more than the Arabs, who already had states of their own. In crucial moments arms came from communist Czechoslovakia, not from Britain and the United States. Soviet-bloc support for Israel’s establishment is another of those embarrassing historical facts that disappeared in later Soviet propaganda, PLO political warfare, and then in the Hamas charter of 2017.

Between the Lines

The 2017 charter is crystal clear that Hamas views all of the country of Israel—that is, not only Ramallah but also Tel Aviv—as “occupied” territory. It recasts acts of terrorism and aggression as forms of “resistance” that “shall continue until liberation is accomplished, until the return is fulfilled and until a fully sovereign state is established with Jerusalem as its capital.” By “the return,” it means the return of all those claiming to be refugees, not only those 700,000 who were actually refugees in 1948 but their descendants, now numbering about 5.5 million people. Such a return could only happen by displacing the existing Jewish population and thus would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Hamas envisages a state that “extends from the River Jordan in the east to the Mediterranean in the west, and from Ras Al-Naqurah in the north to Umm Al-Rashrash in the south.” That area includes all of what is now the State of Israel. Thus, the chant “from the river to the sea” heard on college campuses since 2017 and now on the streets of Washington, D.C., New York, and London is an abbreviation of “the Land of Palestine” paragraph of the 2017 Hamas charter. 

Though it incorporates the language of secular leftism, the 2017 charter clearly and emphatically defines the “liberation”—that is, destruction—of the “Zionist entity” to be an Islamic, hence religious, obligation. “Palestine is an Arab Islamic land. It is a blessed sacred land that has a special place in the heart of every Arab and every Muslim.” The charter perpetuates the intent of its 1988 predecessor to turn a conflict over territory and borders into a Manichean religious war, and thus one that is not amenable to compromise. Yet this return to what is essentially a pre-modern mentality of the 17th-century wars of religion in Europe has not diminished the ardor of Hamas’ often secular supporters in Europe and the United States. 

One of the great political successes of Palestinian nationalists since 1948 has been to obscure the reality of their own legacy of racism. In speeches in London and New York in 1947, Jamal Husseini, then representative of the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations, rejected any Jewish state in Palestine because, in his words, it would undermine “the racial homogeneity” of the Arab world. Defining Zionism as a form of racism is a classic example of psychological projection—that is, attributing one’s own beliefs to others. 

Definitions of racism and anti-racism regarding Zionism and Israel that have been a feature of the secular, leftist attack on Israel since the 1960s are evident in the 2017 charter. It states that, “The Palestinians are the Arabs who lived in Palestine until 1947.” A racist definition of citizenship in a Hamas-dominated state follows. Palestinians, for Hamas, do not include Jews who lived in Palestine before the State of Israel was established. They would be expelled from any state established by Hamas, thus belying the organization’s claims that it was “only” opposed to Zionism but not to the Jews. (Israel, by contrast, following its Declaration of Independence of 1948, is a state of all of its citizens, Jews, and non-Jews.) These definitions of who is a Palestinian and thus who would be entitled to citizenship amount to a recipe for massive ethnic cleansing. Yet none of this has deterred Hamas supporters from claiming that they are opposing racism. Again, the anti-Israeli passion fosters magical thinking.

The 2017 charter encompasses the rhetoric of Palestinian victimhood that was perfected during the Cold War by the PLO and the Soviet bloc. “The catastrophes that have befallen the Palestinian people” were “a consequence of the Zionist occupation and its policy of displacement.” This account assumes that the leadership of the Palestine Arabs in 1947–48 bore no responsibility at all for the war that took place. The use of the term “catastrophe” and then “Naqba” represses the role of Arab agency in those years. The reference to a Zionist “policy of displacement” also ignores the realities of a war that the Arabs started and then lost, as well as repeated Palestinian rejections of compromise proposals. 

In this vein, the charter's section on “The Refugees and the Right of Return” asserts that, “The Palestinian cause in its essence is a cause of an occupied land and a displaced people.” The only solution to the problem so defined is the end of the State of Israel. The reference to an “inalienable right” echoes the secular language of the PLO and of UN resolutions sympathetic to it. To younger generations ignorant of the realities of the war of 1948, Hamas offers an appealing morality tale of Jewish/Zionist oppressors and Palestinian victims: “The Zionist project is a racist, colonial and expansionist project based on seizing the properties of others.” Yet the reality is that the Zionist project was in fact anti-racist and anti-colonial, and it rejected those who wished to expand beyond the lines established in the UN Partition Resolution until, understandably, the state grew in size in response to Arab aggressions. 

Despite the racist definitions of who is and is not a Palestinian, the 2017 charter insists that

[Hamas’] conflict is with the Zionist project not with the Jews because of their religion. Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity.

The assertion that efforts to destroy the State of Israel and expel its inhabitants is not a form of antisemitism was also a constant theme of Soviet and PLO propaganda. Here the Hamas charter of 2017 again draws heavily on the success of leftist and communist propaganda during the Cold War. For the first time in the long history of antisemitism, those who eagerly waged war and used terror to kill Jews did so in the name of fighting racism and colonialism. This absurd inversion led to denials that violence against Jews had anything to do with the fact that they were Jews. Rather, by living in Israel, these people were complicit in the crimes of Zionism and thus deserved to be murdered, as so many innocent civilians were on October 7. 

The 2017 charter states that “the Jewish problem,” as well as “anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews, are phenomena fundamentally linked to European history and not to the history of the Arabs and the Muslims or to their heritage.” This is a preposterous claim convincing only to those who have not read the aforementioned Islamists’ own writings, those of Haj Amin a-Husseini, Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Osama Bin Laden, or even Hamas’ own charter of 1988. The evidence of virulent hatred of Judaism and Jews that emerges from Islamists’ selective reading of the Koran and commentaries is overwhelming and massively documented in a large scholarship. Hamas in 2017 did its best to deny the same.

Clear as Day

The charter of 2017 is not subtle. It states that “no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded” and “rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” In the same paragraph that includes that now-famous chant, the authors inserted the following key sentence: 

However, without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus.

The first clause of the sentence stating its rejection of “the Zionist entity” and not “relinquishing any Palestinian rights” contradicts the meaning of the second and longer clause regarding what Hamas views as a “national consensus.” The sentence amounts to a proposal to establish a Palestinian state whose clear purpose is to use the territory acquired as a base to wage war against Israel. In other words, the 2017 Hamas charter envisages what actually took place, namely the transformation of Gaza into an irredentist mini state designed to wage war and terror against Israel.

The charter also makes clear that Hamas stands in the tradition of modern terrorist organizations that attack efforts to reach compromise solutions. It repudiates “all the agreements, initiatives, and settlement projects that” it claims are “aimed at undermining the Palestinian cause and the rights of the Palestinian people,” including the Oslo Accords or, more recently, the Abraham Accords and proposed normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations. Instead, it stresses “that transgression against the Palestinian people, usurping their land and banishing them from their homeland cannot be called peace.” Thus “resistance and jihad for the liberation of Palestine will remain a legitimate right, a duty and an honour for all the sons and daughters of our people and our Ummah.” 

The revised charter of 2017 advocated as emphatically for continued war with Israel as did the charter of 1988. Paragraph twenty-five states that 

resisting the occupation with all means and methods is a legitimate right guaranteed by divine laws and by international norms and laws. At the heart of these lies armed resistance, which is regarded as the strategic choice for protecting the principles and the rights of the Palestinian people.

 The following clause rejects “any attempt to undermine resistance and its arms.” War with Israel is thus a “strategic,” not a tactical, choice. For Hamas, this is a war not only between Israel and Palestine Arabs but, as Islamists had claimed since the 1930s, one between the Zionists and “the Arab and Islamic Ummah.” Indeed, “the Palestinian issue” is its “central cause.” In this way, the 2017 charter draws attention to a reality that the supporters of Hamas around the world avoid: that the small State of Israel, with its seven million citizens, is faced with a variety of hostile Arab states and Iran, together with many millions of their citizens. The actual relationship of territory and population among the two sides of the contest contradicts the pathos in which Hamas seeks to surround its cause. 

The final four paragraphs of the 2017 document contain a flood of words designed to appeal to a broad leftist, even liberal, audience. Hamas’ cause is “humanitarian and civilizational.” It rests on “the prerequisites of truth, justice and common humanitarian values.” Liberating Palestine is simply “an act of self-defense” and the “natural right of all peoples to self-determination.” Hamas believes in “the values of cooperation, justice, freedom and respect of the will of the people.” 

At the same time, it “calls for the prosecution of Zionist war criminals” and associates undefined efforts to “impose hegemony on the Arab and Islamic Ummah” with other unspecified “attempts to impose hegemony on the rest of the world’s nations and peoples.” And, of course, it “condemns all forms of colonialism, occupation, discrimination, oppression and aggression in the world.” Hamas speaks for the Arabs and Muslims in general, but also for “the rest of the world’s nations and peoples” who are, it alleges, facing unspecified attempts to “impose hegemony” on them. These passages illustrate how the 2017 charter blends the language of secular leftist anti-imperialism with that of an Islamist religious determination to destroy Israel.

There is no precedent in modern history in which a movement such as Hamas, with roots in both the racist ideologies of Nazism and in Islamist religious obscurantism, has been so successful in finding supporters or at least excuse-makers among those who regard themselves as secular leftists. For its entire modern history, anti-fascism had been a defining feature of leftist or progressive politics. Beginning in the 1960s, however, leftists in Europe and the United States redefined anti-fascism in a way that severed it from its meaning in the 1940s and, amazingly, turned it against Israel. For the generations who have come of age since the 1960s, the language of anti-racism and anti-colonialism, mistakenly applied to Zionism and Israel, has facilitated the emergence of a kind of magical thinking that transforms Hamas from an inherently racist and antisemitic terrorist force into a member in good standing of the struggle of the wretched of the earth against colonialism and Western domination. 

For decades there has been far too little public discussion in the world’s democracies about the echoes of Nazism and persistence of Islamist-based religious hatred that are evident in Hamas’ key documents. The authors of its 2017 charter drew on the secular language of the global left to obscure its reactionary, antisemitic, and fundamentalist essence, but the reality of a religious war against the Jews remained central to what Hamas was and is. All three faces of antisemitism—right, left, and Islamist—are evident in the 2017 charter just as they were in the 1988 one. On October 7, 2023, those religious and secular hatreds exploded with a barbarity that surprised only those who had not looked directly at the truth about Hamas’ war against the Jews, which was sitting in plain sight in these two evil documents.

Jeffrey Herf is distinguished university professor of Modern European History, emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of, most recently, Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945–1949 (Cambridge University Press, 2022) and the forthcoming essay collection, Three Faces of Antisemitism: Right, Left and Islamist (December 2023, Routledge). 

Image: Protestors at a Free Palestine rally in Reno, Nevada. (Unsplash: Manny Becerra)

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