Hamas begins secret leadership election as Mashaal said eyeing comeback

First round of voting reportedly already held clandestinely by Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails

Ismail Haniyeh gestures to supporters during a visit to the Ein el-Hilweh camp, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, near the southern coastal city of Sidon on September 6, 2020. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)
Ismail Haniyeh gestures to supporters during a visit to the Ein el-Hilweh camp, Lebanon's largest Palestinian refugee camp, near the southern coastal city of Sidon on September 6, 2020. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

With Palestinians set to head to national elections in May, the Hamas terror group officially began its own internal leadership elections on Friday.

“Hamas is proud of the start of the internal electoral process to choose its leadership according to democratic foundations,” spokesperson Hazem Qasim wrote on Twitter.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree in mid-January ordering the first Palestinian national elections in more than 15 years. The long-running rift between Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas has thwarted attempts to hold a national vote since a landslide victory by Hamas in 2006 legislative elections.

The internal Hamas vote had already been scheduled before the decree, with the first round reportedly already held by Hamas members in secret ballots in Israeli prisons.

Palestinian women, one holding a picture of Hamas movement chief Ismail Haniyeh, attend a mass rally marking the 32nd anniversary of the founding of Hamas on December 14, 2019, in Gaza city. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Hamas divides the vote into four areas — Gaza, the West Bank, the diaspora and Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. The elections occur once every four years and appoint members at every level in the terror group’s hierarchy: from local leaders in Gaza and the West Bank to the Shura Council, a quasi-legislative branch.

The Shura Council will vote for candidates for the Hamas political bureau, the most senior decision-making body in the terror group.

The last Hamas internal vote was conducted in 2017. Current Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh took the top spot, replacing Khaled Mashaal, who had held the post since 1996. Haniyeh had previously served as Hamas’s Gaza chief.

Unlike Fatah elections, which are festive events, drawing large crowds to public polling places, the Hamas vote is held in secret. The results are expected to be released in April.

Rumors have fluttered in the Palestinian press for months that Mashaal would seek a comeback against Haniyeh in the internal elections. The former Hamas chief has resided in Doha since 2012.

Haniyeh’s base is in Gaza while Mashaal’s main constituency is in the West Bank and abroad, according to Gaza-based political analyst Mukhaymar Abu Saada.

Abu Saada said Hamas’s patrons are likely divided on who they would prefer to see in the top spot. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, he argued, begrudge Mashaal for the decision to side with the Syrian opposition against Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war,during its early stages.

Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal at a rally in Hamas’s honor in Cape Town, South Africa, October 21, 2015. (AFP/Rodger Bosch)

“Khaled Mashaal has better regional connections with Qatar and Turkey for example, than Ismail Haniyeh. But on the other hand, Iran and Syria would certainly oppose him, because they see Mashaal as responsible for opposing the regime in 2012,” said Abu Saada, who teaches political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

Hamas’s internal elections are likely to be influenced by the Palestinian national legislative elections scheduled for May 22. Many observers have expressed skepticism that the vote will actually come to pass, as many promises to hold a national election have evaporated before.

The last Palestinian national election was in 2006, in which Hamas defeated Fatah in a landslide. Hamas’s victory led to a brief but bloody civil war between the two rival Palestinian movements, after which Hamas expelled Abbas’s Fatah movement to the West Bank.

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