Hamas is paying a spin doctor $180,000 (£100,000) to persuade Europeans and Americans that it is not a group of religious fanatics who relish suicide bombings and hate Jews.
The organisation, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has hired a media consultant, Nashat Aqtash, to improve its image at home and abroad because it expects to emerge from next week’s Palestinian general election as a major political force, and wants recognition and acceptance by the US and EU.
“Hamas has an image problem. The Israelis were able to create a very bad image of the Palestinians in general and particularly Muslims and Hamas. My contract is to project the right image,” said Mr Aqtash, who also teaches media at Birzeit University in Ramallah.
“We don’t need the international community to accept Hamas ideology, we need it to accept the facts on the ground. We are not killing people because we love to kill. People view Hamas as loving sending people to die. We don’t love death, we like life.”
Mr Aqtash, who describes himself as opposed to violence and “believing in the Gandhi route”, has advised Hamas leaders to change their image by explaining that they do not hate Israelis because they are Jews. And he is attempting to persuade influential foreigners that Hamas is essentially a peaceful organisation that was forced to fight, but is now committed to pressing its cause through politics, not violence.
“Hamas does not believe in terrorism or killing civilians. But Ariel Sharon pressed buttons to make people angry. Sometimes we are innocent enough to react in a way that the Israelis use the reaction against us,” he said.
Next week Mr Aqtash says he will address the former US president Jimmy Carter and former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, and other prominent foreigners monitoring the election. But he admits he and his small team working from an office in Ramallah have their work cut out. Hamas is responsible for scores of suicide bombings, killing and maiming hundreds of civilians (many of them children), although not for yesterday’s attack in Tel Aviv.
Hamas’s founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and it wants to impose an Islamic state on all Palestinian territory.
Mr Aqtash, who says he is not a member of Hamas and does not know where it got the money to pay him but frequently refers to the group as “we”, says he has told the leadership it has to change its rhetoric. He says Hamas has not helped itself by celebrating suicide bombings; he advises against celebration. And he has told Hamas leaders not to talk about destroying Israel.
“Abdel Aziz Rantisi [the former Hamas leader killed by Israel two years ago] was on television saying things that foreigners cannot accept, like we will remove Israel from the map. He should have talked about Palestinian suffering. He should have said we need this occupation ended. Foreigners will accept this,” he said.
Mr Aqtash has also advised Hamas leaders to emphasise that they are not anti-semitic or against Israelis because they are Jews. Hamas has taken the message on board. In an interview earlier this week, Muhammad Abu Tir, who is second on the Hamas election list, twice (and unprompted) offered an assurance that he is not a Jew hater.
“Loving others is part of our religion. We are not against Jews as Jews, we are against oppression,” he said.
Mr Aqtash also told Mr Abu Tir to rid himself of a red beard, coloured by henna, because it makes people laugh.
The PR man wriggles away from questions about whether Hamas has more than an image problem when it sends bombers on buses and into cafes.
“I’m personally against killing. All civilians should not be killed. Killing Israeli civilians is not accepted by the international community. They think it is a terrorist act,” he said.
“But Sharon was responsible for killing civilians too. During this intifada Hamas killed a thousand Israelis, some of them civilians, some of them soldiers. But the Israelis killed 4,000 Palestinians. It’s a war. The Israelis use F16s; Hamas uses people. Anyway, Hamas hasn’t sent a suicide bomber in a year.”
Hamas is also attempting to soften its image at home with the launch of a television station in Gaza that includes a children’s show presented by “Uncle Hazim” and men in furry animal suits. The station, named Al Aqsa Television after Islam’s third holiest site, says it intends to put across the group’s message “but without getting into the tanks, the guns, the killing and the blood”. It will instead focus on religious readings, discussion programmes and a talent show.
Mr Aqtash, however, is not entirely confident in his powers of persuasion.
“How did I do?” he asked as the interview ended. “Did I make you think differently about Hamas?”
The advice Nashat Aqtash gave to Hamas:
Say you are not against Israelis as Jews
Don’t talk about destroying Israel
Do talk about Palestinian suffering
Don’t celebrate killing people
Change beard colour (if red)
This piece ran in the Guardian on January 21st, 2006