Hamas leadership vote turns into dramatic standoff as Sinwar seeks reelection

Three rounds of voting fail to produce a clear outcome, 4th vote said delayed; Sinwar’s chief opponent, Nizar Awadullah, played a key role in 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar speaks during a press conference in Gaza City on May 30, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar speaks during a press conference in Gaza City on May 30, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Three rounds of voting for the leadership of Hamas’s Gaza office were said to end in a stalemate on Tuesday night, potentially threatening the leadership of Hamas’s Gaza governor, Yahya Sinwar.

No official confirmation was immediately made by the Hamas terror group, which is in the midst of holding clandestine elections for its top spots. The Palestinian movement’s internal elections are normally conducted in utter secrecy over a period of months.

The winner of the vote will lead Hamas’s Gaza office, effectively becoming the Strip’s de facto ruler. Sinwar has held the role since 2017.

The Hamas Shura Council, a quasi-legislative body within the terror group, casts ballots to determine who will sit in the group’s senior spots. Around 320 members are eligible to vote, and a candidate needs 160 votes — a simple majority — to win the day.

Initial reports from Lebanese media indicated that Sinwar had been defeated by another senior Hamas official, Nizar Awadallah. A source in Gaza, however, indicated that three rounds of internal voting by senior Hamas members had failed to see any candidate win a majority of votes — with Awadallah and Sinwar neck and neck.

According to the Ma’an News Agency, the vote has been delayed to “a later date” due to the standoff.

Sinwar, a long-time terror chief who spent decades in Israeli jails, had been marked by many as an ambitious Hamas official with his eye on the terror group’s top spot — currently occupied by political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh.

Known by his Israeli interrogators as “the Butcher from Khan Younis” due to his enthusiastic execution of Palestinians alleged to have collaborated with Israel, Sinwar was released from Israeli jail during the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas.

In 2017, he was appointed the head of Hamas’s Gaza office, making him the Strip’s de facto ruler.

The Hamas member said to constitute his main rival, Nizar Awadullah, played a key role in the 2011 prisoner exchange negotiations. He is a member of the Hamas politburo, the group’s highest decision-making body, and was a close confidant of Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin.

A member of Hamas’s founding generation, Awadullah is also said to be close to former Hamas political bureau chief, Khaled Mashaal. Awadullah’s house was bombed twice by Israel, once in 2009 and again in 2014.

Hamas 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 last Hamas internal vote was conducted in 2017. Current Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh took the top spot, replacing 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 full results are expected to be released in April.

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