Hamas has dropped its call for the destruction of Israel from its manifesto for the Palestinian parliamentary election in a fortnight, a move that brings the group closer to the mainstream Palestinian position of building a state within the boundaries of the occupied territories.
The Islamist faction, responsible for a long campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis, still calls for the maintenance of the armed struggle against occupation. But it steps back from Hamas’s 1988 charter demanding Israel’s eradication and the establishment of a Palestinian state in its place.
The manifesto makes no mention of the destruction of the Jewish state and instead takes a more ambiguous position by saying that Hamas had decided to compete in the elections because it would contribute to "the establishment of an independent state whose capital is Jerusalem".
The shift in emphasis comes as Hamas finds itself under pressure from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and from foreign governments to accept Israel’s right to exist and to end its violence if it wants to be accepted as a political partner in a future administration.
The group is expected to emerge as the second largest party after Mr Abbas’s Fatah in the next Palestinian parliament. Opinion polls give it more than a third of the popular vote, built on a campaign against Fatah’s endemic corruption and mismanagement and failure to contain growing criminality, and by claiming credit for driving the Israeli army and settlers out of Gaza.
But the manifesto continues to emphasise the armed struggle. "Our nation is at a stage of national liberation, and it has the right to act to regain its rights and end the occupation by using all means, including armed resistance," it says.
Gazi Hamad, a Hamas candidate in the Gaza Strip, yesterday said the manifesto reflected the group’s position of accepting an interim state based on 1967 borders but leaving a final decision on whether to recognise Israel to future generations.
"Hamas is talking about the end of the occupation as the basis for a state, but at the same time Hamas is still not ready to recognise the right of Israel to exist," he said. "We cannot give up the right of the armed struggle because our territory is occupied in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That is the territory we are fighting to liberate."
But Mr Hamad said the armed resistance was no longer Hamas’s primary strategy. "The policy is to maintain the armed struggle but it is not our first priority. We know that first of all we have to put more effort into resolving the internal problems, dealing with corruption, blackmail, chaos. This is our priority because if we change the situation for the Palestinians it will make our cause stronger.
"Hamas is looking to establish a new political strategy in which all Palestinian groups will participate, not just dominated by Fatah. We will discuss the negotiation strategy, how can we run the conflict with Israel but by different means."
Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian cabinet minister and member of the secular Palestinian People’s party, said he believed Hamas was being forced to face reality as it prepared to sit in parliament, and that it would have to embrace a negotiated settlement with Israel: "Having Hamas inside the system is a positive development whereby they have to abide by the rules of the majority and respect the arguments of the administration they are part of, which includes a state built on 1967 borders. It will take time but Hamas will no longer have their own militia. It will be solely a political force."
But Israel’s security establishment predicts that if Hamas does as well as expected in the election it will damage the Palestinian Authority and further undermine the prospects for an agreement.