The Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, is a Muslim Brotherhood, terrorist organization in the Palestinian territories and the dominant power in the Gaza Strip. In the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is one of the chronic conflicts of the Middle East region, Hamas is a traditional enemy of Israel. Hamas was established in 1987, and since then, it has been at war with the Jewish state. In May 2017, Hamas officially revealed its much-anticipated Document of General Principles and Policies. Leaders of Hamas have publicly denied that the document replaces the organization’s founding Charter of 1988; however, the unveiling of this document is a major step that should not be ignored, one that some American news media outlets have interpreted incorrectly.
As soon as the Document was revealed, headlines from news outlets such as Cable News Network (CNN) said Hamas now accepts a Palestinian State along the 1967 lines (Qiblawi, Dewan, & Register, 2017). Headlines in The New York Times described the Document as moderation (Fisher, 2017). But, in a statement posted on YouTube, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, said: “This is a complete distortion of the truth” (Tea Partier, 2017).
In this paper, I use communication theories to obtain analysis frameworks, showing why prominent American news media outlets, like CNN and The New York Times, could not correctly interpret the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017. In my argument, I employ an approach that relies on a cocktail of media, religion, and politics to explain why the coverage of these news media outlets carries unreliable interpretations of the Document as a text in a communication process.
Textual Communication Power Through Gatekeeping
McKee (2003) explains that communication power lies in the ability of texts to influence the “interpretation of something’s meaning” (p. 4), and that the material reality of textual communication power allows for the recovery and critical interrogation of discursive interactions (e.g., religion and politics) in an empirical form, as those interactions occur in texts, because texts are neither scientific data nor historical documents, but are literarily forensic evidence (p. 15). This argument provides a conceptual foundation to analyze the textual communication power of the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017.
The first dimension of the Document’s textual communication power is through gatekeeping (Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). The term gatekeeping describes a mother as the one who decides what meal should be on the dinner table of her family (Lewin, 1947). A gatekeeper can simply be defined as the person who decides what shall pass through each gate section of which in any process there are many (Lewin, 1947). Gatekeeping theory can be extended to embrace a text in a communication process, where communicators function as gatekeepers of information. Communicators decide what information will be included in their texts. In other words, they decide what information may enter or leave a system by using texts as communication vehicles (White, 1950). This means communicators potentially exert power to control the level of knowledge regarding certain issues. By using texts, communicators can allow certain information to pass through their communication systems, while regulating, or excluding other information.
Gatekeeping is a decision-making process that relies a web of influences, preferences, motives, and values (White, 1950). This is especially true in a terrorist organization like Hamas. Studies on information gatekeeping found that ideology plays a significant role in the decision-making process of information selection (Donohew, 1967). Religion and politics are at the core of ideology. For example, a gatekeeper’s religious predisposition, combined with political attitude, is an important driving force in the communication process. But, in the context of gatekeeping, how did this combination of religion and politics occur in the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017?
To answer this question, I will compare two texts: The Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017 and the Hamas Charter of 1988. The comparison should reveal major differences between these two texts. The communication power of a text is not only in what it says, but also what it does not say (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). I will argue that the textual communication power of a text, which relies on the omission of information (i.e., a form of gatekeeping), may lead to a misinterpretation of the text. So, compared to the Hamas Charter of 1988, what is the major omission of information in the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017?
After deconstructing both texts (i.e., the Document and Charter), I found that the most significant omission of information in the Document, compared to the Charter, is the term waqf (endowment). In the next section, I will explain the theological meaning of waqf in Islam, and the political impact of this term when it is applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Palestine as Waqf
In Islamic law (i.e., Sharia), waqf is when the ownership of a specific property is taken away from the legal owner voluntarily, making the property waqf, and ownership is transferred as an endowment to all Muslims. Once a specific property is waqf, it means that the owner of the property are the followers of Islam. Once a piece of land is waqf, it cannot be sold, inherited, or gifted, because it belongs to the Muslim community as a whole (Solanki, 2015).
The Hamas Charter of 1988 states: “The Islamic Resistance Movement [Hamas] maintains that the land of Palestine is waqf land given as endowment for all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection,” adding, “This waqf will exist as long as the heaven and earth exist. Any measure which does not conform to this Islamic law regarding Palestine is null and void” (Covenant of Hamas, 2006).
Labeling that piece of land in the Middle East, call it Palestine or Israel, as waqf means: “When a [waqf ] is created, the property is detained or, is ‘tied up’ forever and thereafter becomes non-transferable” (Solanki, 2015). Defining Palestine (or Israel) as waqf is well articulated in the Hamas Charter of 1988and the Charter clearly states that this piece of land belongs only to Muslims – all Muslims, both Arab and non-Arab. In effect, the Hamas Charter of 1988 is a clear NO to the two-state solution. It projects one vision regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I call it the waqf. Solution: “One should not neglect it [Palestine] or [even] a part of it, nor should one relinquish it or [even] a part of it. No Arab state, or [even] all of the Arab states [together], have [the right] to do this; no king or president has this right nor all the kings and presidents together; no organization, or all the organizations together - be they Palestinian or Arab - [have the right to do this] because Palestine is Islamic waqf land given to all generations of Muslims until the Day of Resurrection” (Covenant of Hamas, 2006).
Contrary to the Hamas Charter of 1988, the term waqf is not mentioned at all in the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017. To explain how this omission of information (i.e., gatekeeping) boosted the Document’s textual communication power, influencing major American news media outlets to generate misinterpretations, I will employ two analysis tools: framing as a communication theory and analysis framework.
Framing the Omission of Waqf
In framing theory, a text is a system of organized elements. Those elements have two functions: (1) they advocate certain ideas, and (2)they provide mental devices to help receivers of the text interpret those ideas into certain meanings (Pan & Kosicki, 1993). A frame is a central organizing word, phrase, image, symbol, etc. (Gamson, 2001). A word, phrase, image, or symbol is considered a frame when it organizes the elements of a text by holding them together and giving them a meaningful coherence. Accordingly, the term waqf is a frame when it was present in the Hamas Charter of 1988 and, most importantly, when it was absent in the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017. To explain how this omission of the frame, waqf , boosted the Document’s textual communication power, leading major American news media outlets to misinterpret, we need to understand how framing effects work.
Presentation of information. A different presentation of the same information can alter the meaning of the information (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007). In the context of the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017, not presenting Palestine as waqf altered the meaning of who holds ownership over Palestine. In other words, a meaning can be generated from the Document that Palestine does not belong to just the Muslim community, and a Palestinian State can be negotiated with Hamas. I argue that by omitting the frame, waqf, Hamas is using the Document to deceptively present itself as a potential participant in peace negotiations with Israel.
Importance of frames. Certain frames may resonate with the receivers of a text in such a way that these frames become especially compelling to the meanings the receivers generate out of the text (Scheufele, 1999). The frame, waqf, was especially compelling to the meaning of Palestine in the Hamas Charter of 1988, and when it was omitted from the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017, it became especially compelling to the new meaning.
Socially constructed meanings. Communicators use socially constructed meanings to activate certain relevant schemes of interpretation (Goffman, 1974). waqf , as the frame, carries socially constructed religious and political meanings. These meanings activated specific schemes of interpretation when waqf was used to define Palestine in the Hamas Charter of 1988. When waqf was not used in the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017, the absence of the corresponding socially constructed meanings triggered other schemes of interpretation concerning Palestine and Hamas’ definition of Palestine.
Competition between frames. Communicators prefer to deal with frames they are familiar with. When a communicator is familiar with a frame, the communicator makes a conscious decision to employ or not employ the frame in a text (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). Hamas is familiar with the religious and political effects of waqf on the contextual meaning of Palestine. When the frame, waqf, was present in the Hamas Charter of 1988, it generated a certain meaning about Palestine. However, as explained earlier, waqf is so unique that it influenced a meaning about Palestine when it was absent in the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017.
Frequencies of frames. To frame is to select some aspects of a reality to make them more salient in a text (Entman, 1993). Waqf, was mentioned five times in the Hamas Charter of 1988, but it was not used at all in the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017. Five times refers to an emphasis on this meaningful frame, and this emphasis is meaningful by itself. By not mentioning the term at all in the document, it infers that there is no emphasis on the meaningful frame, waqf , and therefore no emphasis is also meaningful by itself.
From this framing-based analysis, we can understand why and how textual communication power made some American news media outlets improperly interpret the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017. The question now is: With respect to this Document, what did these news media outlets miss in the context of framing?
Tone of Document
The Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017 does not state the frame, waqf , but it uses the meaning of waqf to describe Palestine: “Hamas believes that no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded, irrespective of the causes, the circumstances and the pressures and no matter how long the [Israeli] occupation lasts. Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea” (Document of General Principles, 2017).
This is not a peacemaking tone, but, sadly, some American news media outlets bought the subliminal bluffing of Hamas. American media coverage of the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in 2017 is a typical case that illustrates how news media outlets may fail to understand the coupling between religion and politics.
In conclusion, the Document of General Principles and Policies issued by Hamas in May 2017 represents neither progress nor moderation. The Document brings changes to neither the reality of Hamas as an organization, nor the status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some scholars and practitioners may disagree with my analysis and findings. I remind all of them with Netanyahu’s wise words that: “It’s bad enough Hamas lies to the world. We don’t also have to lie to ourselves” (Tea Partier, 2017).
About the author:
Mohammed Al-Azdee is Associate Professor of Mass Communication at the University of Bridgeport. His research focus is the intersection amongst media, politics, and religion. Articles by Dr. Al-Azdee have been published in the Foreign Policy Journal, the International Affairs Forum, the Mass Communicator, the International Journal of Development Research and Quantitative Techniques, Questions of Journalism, the Journal of Global Development and Peace, Media & Mass Communication, and the International Journal of Communication Studies. Dr. Al-Azdee has also served the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication as Vice Head and Research Chair of the International Communication Division.
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