HAMAS political leader Khaled Meshal has ordered the group’s military wing to cease attacks on Israel, according to senior officials of the Fatah organisation cited by the newspaper Haaretz.
The sources said Mr Meshal had issued the order a month ago in the wake of talks in Cairo with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also head of the Fatah Party.
Israeli officials say they are unaware of any such shift in Hamas policy. However, Hamas has refrained from firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip or launching other attacks for some time.
A change in Mr Meshal’s tone has been detectable in recent weeks. Popular protest, as distinct from armed struggle, he said last week, has the power of a tsunami. This, he said, had been demonstrated by recent events in the Arab world, a reference to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
Mr Meshal expressed support for the establishment of a unified Palestinian state embracing the West Bank, now the province of the Palestinian Authority; East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel; and the Gaza Strip, which Hamas rules.
“Fatah and we have political differences,” he said, “but the common ground is agreement on a state within the 1967 borders.”
Mr Meshal has not renounced Hamas’s charter, which calls for the elimination of Israel, and he reserves the right to resort to violence in the future.
The Fatah sources said that Hamas would not officially recognise Israel or accept peace agreements with it. Nor does Hamas intend to stop arming itself.
Nevertheless, the reported new policy is a marked divergence from the militant rhetoric and policies Mr Meshal has adopted until now and appears to represent a significant shift in strategy.
Other militant groups in Gaza, like Islamic Jihad, have not endorsed Mr Meshal’s position and they continue to send rockets into Israel periodically, although far less than in the past. This is presumed to be because Hamas is reining them in. The local Hamas leadership in Gaza, which frequently differs with Mr Meshal, expressed surprise at his new position and reiterated that the only way to liberate the occupied lands was through armed struggle.
The Hamas interior minister in Gaza, Fathi Hamad, said the group’s internal leadership – which is the Gaza leadership, as distinct from the political leadership, based in Damascus – would not necessarily abide by Mr Meshal’s new policy.
However, he said that the decision to resort to a popular struggle was made by the Hamas advisory body, the Shura Council, on which all senior members of the organisation sit.
Israel has given no indication that its policy towards Hamas is likely to change. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel will not negotiate with the Palestinian Authority if Hamas joins the Palestinian government.