Saturday’s announcement by Hamas’s political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal that Ismail Haniyeh had been chosen as his successor was seen by Palestinians as anything but a surprising or dramatic move.
The decision had been expected for months, with two viable contenders in the race: Moussa Abu Marzouk, Mashaal’s deputy and one of the terror group’s leaders abroad, and Haniyeh, another of Mashaal’s deputies who has for years remained in the Gaza Strip.
The most significant aspect of Haniyeh’s appointment is the Gazan takeover of the group’s center of power.
For 21 years the political bureau was headed by Mashaal, a native of the relatively prosperous and well known West Bank village of Silwad. Throughout those years Mashaal operated from overseas hotels and luxury apartments in Damascus, Qatar and Jordan.
Haniyeh’s appointment reflects a message of change on a personal level: Haniyeh is a Gaza native, having grown up and lived there his whole life. He is a resident of the Shati refugee camp, the farthest thing imaginable from the fancy hotels of Qatar.
Haniyeh’s reputation as “a man of the people,” someone who will buy his meal from a falafel stand and help an old lady cross the street, is no mere affectation — and a far cry from the overseas leadership’s reputation for decadence.
Haniyeh’s election, coupled with the recent choice of Yahya Sinwar as his replacement in leading the group’s Gaza branch, demonstrate the Strip’s evolution into the group’s main hub, while its other branches — the West Bank, prisons, overseas operations — are all increasingly marginalized.
Yet anyone who expects this shift to translate into a meaningful political or ideological change is likely to be disappointed.
Haniyeh, just 54 years old, is considered a “moderate” or pragmatist, especially when compared to Sinwar. Haniyeh was one of the proponents of the group’s new platform, which attempts to portray the group to the West as moderating, but he has never renounced the principles by which the group has been defined since its founding — chiefly the refusal to accept the legitimacy of Israel.
In that, he simply represents the current mainstream of Hamas — pushing for ceasefires but rejecting any notion of recognizing Israel or negotiating peace.
He has often threatened Israel in speeches and at rallies, and has praised the killing of Israeli civilians in terror attacks. He has pledged to continue violent opposition to Israel until it is “liberated.”
In this sense, Haniyeh is a classic “Son of Hamas”: he studied at an Islamic university and became a student leader there before going on to teach at the university and eventually becoming chief of staff to Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. For years he worked beside Yassin, and his proximity to the group’s spiritual leader helped him stand out among his peers.
At this point it is not clear whether Haniyeh will continue living in Gaza or decamp for overseas. On Friday, he was unable to leave the coastal enclave, even though the Egyptians announced the opening of the Rafah border crossing.
If he remains in Gaza, it may deeply limit his ability to travel to diplomatic meetings and gather donations. In the event of war, his presence may make him a viable target for assassination by Israel.
Whether he chooses to stay in Gaza or live abroad, the key question that will determine the direction of Hamas in the coming years will be his relationship with Sinwar, who despite being the same age as Haniyeh is thought to be a more senior and influential figure in the group.
Unlike Haniyeh, Sinwar has a “combat” background and enjoys widespread support in Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. In light of this, it is not at all clear that in the case of a clash between Haniyeh and Sinwar, the terror group’s armed faction will necessarily do the bidding of the political bureau over the orders of the grizzled commander in Gaza.
Haniyeh is popular and enjoys widespread support among Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West bank. Polls taken in recent years show that if an election were held in the West Bank and Gaza, Haniyeh would defeat PA President Mahmoud Abbas, but would lose to Marwan Barghouti, the convicted Fatah terror planner now leading a hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
The decision by Hamas’s leadership to tap Haniyeh for the group’s top post is part and parcel of its recent unveiling of its new political program. Both mark an attempt to broadcast to the Palestinian, Arab and Western publics that Hamas, which oversees a collapsing Gaza besieged on both borders, has become more moderate, more pragmatic and more practical. The Hamas of 2017 may not have undergone any real change — it has not actually amended or canceled its original, viciously anti-Semitic charter, and it remains avowedly committed to the destruction of Israel — but it is trying to tell the world otherwise. The strategy is clear: to turn itself into an alternative to the Palestine Liberation Organization and eventually to replace the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians.
And what of Israel? The repeated promises by current Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to assassinate Haniyeh within 48 hours of becoming defense minister if the bodies of two missing Israeli soldiers are not returned has long been forgotten.
The defense minister, together with his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the consensus view of the Israeli security establishment, prefer the “Haniyeh” formula of Hamas rule that preserves the calm on the Gaza border and clamps down on Islamic State-inspired extremists in the Strip who fire rockets and plan terror attacks against Israel to the likely decline into chaos that would follow a Hamas collapse, a scenario that could see armed gangs of even more radical extremists gain control of the territory.
It remains to be seen which Hamas, Haniyeh’s or Sinwar’s, will be setting the tone in Gaza.