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International leader Ismail Haniyeh
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Sunday 29/10/2017

Ismail Haniyeh

The recent replacement of Khaled Meshaal with Ismail Haniyeh as Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau signals a major shift in the inertia that has characterized the group in recent decades. Meshaal has served in his current role for over 20 years, while Haniyeh served as the disputed Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority between 2006 and 2014.

So how much do we know about Hamas’ future leader? And what can we expect from the man who has enemies not only in Israel, but also among the Palestinian political establishment?

Early Life & Background

Haniyeh was born in 1963 in the Al-Shati Refugee Camp in the north of the Gaza Strip – at that time under Egyptian military occupation. His parents originated from Ashkelon, but became refugees after fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.

He attended schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and graduated from the Islamic University of Gaza with a degree in Arabic literature. During these years he became involved with Hamas and served as the head of the students’ council representing the Muslim Brotherhood (The Islamic University of Gaza’s founder happens to be Mahmoud al-Zahar – one of the co-founders of Hamas). He graduated at the same time as the first intifada, which likely helped to formulate his antagonism toward Israel and his esteem for armed resistance. He was given a short prison sentence by Israeli authorities in Gaza for his role in the protests and was detained again in 1988 and imprisoned for 6 months. In 1989, he was again imprisoned for three years.

Haniyeh was released in 1992 and was deported by Israeli authorities to Lebanon with senior Hamas leaders and 400 other activists. Using Lebanon as their base, they garnered substantial support and media exposure – both in the Middle East and around the world. He was able to return to Gaza in 1993 and was appointed Dean of the Islamic University of Gaza.

In 1997, he became the head of the office of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin – the spiritual leader and one of the co-founders of Hamas. The two men enjoyed a close relationship, leading to Haniyeh also serving as the group’s representative to the Palestinian Authority.

Amid the second Intifada, Hamas’ popularity surged as a response to the perceived success of armed resistance and suicide bombing. Furthermore, with many members of Hamas’ leadership being assassinated by Israeli security forces, Haniyeh was able to avoid competing with factional and personal rivals within Hamas for more authoritative positions.

Movement Through Hamas

Haniyeh’s ascension through the Hamas ranks also drew increased attention from Israeli security focus. In line with Israel’s policy of targeting leaders complicit in terror attacks against Israelis, Haniyeh and Yassin were slightly injured in an Israeli airstrike on an apartment block in Gaza city in September 2013. Six months later, Yassin was killed in a targeted assassination by an Israeli helicopter. As the spiritual leader, co-founder and close friend of Haniyeh, Yassin’s assassination more than likely strengthened Haniyeh’s loathing of Israel. Following Yassin’s assassination, Abdel-Aziz Rantissi was appointed his successor in Gaza. However, he too was assassinated in April 2014. Because of these efficient assassinations, Hamas decided to install a secret ‘collective leadership’ with Haniyeh, Mahmoud al-Zahar and Said al-Siyam.

In December 2005, Haniyeh was chosen to head the Hamas list in the Palestinian legislative elections. In the elections the following month, Hamas won a commanding majority with 76 seats out of a possible 132. Fatah won the next most seats with 43. Haniyeh was then confirmed as Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority and was asked by President Mahmoud Abbas to form a government.

Weeks of negotiations regarding a coalition with Fatah and other factions failed, and Haniyeh was forced to appoint a cabinet comprised primarily of Hamas members. This new cabinet was met with skepticism and repudiation from the US and the EU, both of whom threatened to cut funding to the Palestinian Authority unless Hamas renounced violence and recognized Israel. Haniyeh did not meet these requests and pleaded with them to not carry out their threats.

Strained Relations with Fatah

On December 14, 2016, an assassination attempt occurred at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt that killed one of Haniyeh’s bodyguards and injured his son. Hamas consequently blamed Fatah for the assassination attempt.

In June 2007, after a week of fierce fighting between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. President Abbas subsequently dissolved the Hamas-dominated government and dismissed Haniyeh as Prime Minister. Unsurprisingly, Haniyeh rejected the move and presented himself as the de facto Prime Minister – and would remain so up until June 2014.

Since that time, his role has been characterized by two main activities: trying to reach a reconciliation/unity agreement with Fatah and continuing the policy of mukawama (armed resistance) against Israel and its citizens. No elections have been held in the Gaza Strip since 2006, enabling Hamas to cement their control of the territory.

As the most senior official of the Gazan government, Haniyeh is understood to be responsible for the human rights abuses and war crimes emanating from Hamas in the territory. This means that, among other incidents, he is liable for:

Personal Life

Haniyeh has thirteen children. He is thought to have become a millionaire through over 2,500 square meters of land in Gaza as well as selling subsidized fuel for profit. Three of his sisters, Kholidia, Laila and Sabah, are citizens of Israel and live in the Bedouin town of Tel as-Sabi near Beersheva.

In early 2012, Israeli authorities granted permission for Haniyeh’s sister and her critically ill husband to travel to Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva to receive emergency heart treatment.  Similarly, in addition to several other members of Haniyeh’s family, his daughter spent a week in a Tel Aviv hospital for emergency treatment in October 2014.

Future Prospects

Amid the change in leadership, the continuity of past Hamas behavior will remain. Although the group will vote on a new charter in the near-future, they are not expected to renounce violence or support any of the norms laid out in the Oslo Accords of 1993. Due to pressure from the international community and media, they may do away with various anti-Semitic articles of the charter such as ‘The Day of Judgment will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, “O Muslim, O servant of God, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him”’.

His attitude toward both Israel and Fatah is not likely to be any warmer than his predecessor. He would harbor added enmity toward Israel for destroying his house in 2014’s Operation Protective Edge and for assassinating his mentor Sheikh Yassin. In relation to Fatah, he no doubt still resents the fact that he was dismissed as the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority in favor of Third Way’s Salam Fayyad. Known as a firebrand public speaker, he is likely to be received more poorly by the international community than the erudite and softly-spoken Meshaal. Coupled with the volatile militancy he displays at Hamas rallies, it does not bode well for those hoping for peace and stability.


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