“Change and reform,” is the Hamas slogan for this week’s Palestinian parliamentary elections, a message which taps into the disaffection many feel for the ruling Fatah party.
In an attempt to broaden its appeal, Hamas does not mention its call for the destruction of Israel in this campaign, although it remains in its charter.
And there is little sign of softening in Hamas’ Gaza leader Mahmoud Al Zahar’s speech at a rally. “We will never be Israel’s ally and we will not recognise it as a neighbour and we will not allow it to stay on one inch of Palestine,” he said.
Founded in 1987 in some of the most deprived refugee camps in Gaza, the Islamic militant movement is known worldwide for its suicide attacks against the Israeli occupation.
But for many Palestinians, Hamas is much more than that. It provides food, medicine and clothing for some of the poorest, has an extensive charity network and, crucially as far as these elections go, is perceived as free of corruption. Unlike Fatah. After 10 years in power the party founded by Yasser Arafat is floundering amid allegations of rampant corruption, cronyism and in-fighting.
Its election campaign has been undermined by scenes of violence, with gunmen linked to Fatah storming electoral offices in protest at the selection of candidates.
Buoyed by its success at local elections, Hamas is fielding more than 60candidates and opinion polls suggest it could win up to a third of the vote.
For Nader Saed, sociology professor at Bir Zeit University, it is a radical change. He said: “Hamas has decided to play within the rules, to play the game as it is played in the international community and given the rules of the international community. Therefore, Hamas has moved itself from a militant group into a political group that represents a social, political movement within Palestinian society.”
Hamas appears to have adopted a more pragmatic approach ahead of Wednesday’s elections, but it seems likely it will still have to choose between the bullet and the ballot box in the not too distant future.