Sinwar wins 2nd term as Hamas Gaza chief after tense election standoff

Three rounds of voting on Tuesday night failed to yield victor; terror group’s internal elections are conducted in secret

Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to foreign correspondents in his office in Gaza City, May 10, 2018. (Khalil Hamra/AP)
Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to foreign correspondents in his office in Gaza City, May 10, 2018. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Yahya Sinwar has won a second term as the organization’s Gaza leader, a Hamas spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday.

“Yahya Sinwar has been elected for a second term as head of Hamas’ Gaza political bureau, from 2021 to 2025,” Hamas spokesperson Hazim Qasim said in a statement.

The Hamas terror group is holding clandestine elections for its top spots. The Palestinian movement’s internal elections are normally conducted in utter secrecy over a period of months.

Sinwar won the top position in Hamas’s Gaza politburo. Whoever holds the post becomes the highest-ranking Hamas official in the coastal enclave, the Strip’s de facto ruler, and the second most powerful member of the organization.

Three rounds of voting were conducted last night, with neither Sinwar nor his chief opponent Nizar Awadullah able to clinch victory. Sinwar received more than 50% of the vote in Wednesday’s ballot, leading him to a second four-year term.

In a statement following the tense election standoff, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh praised Hamas’s internal vote as “real elections, not purely for show.”

“With transparency and integrity, everyone accepts its results,” Haniyeh said of the vote.

Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar in Gaza City, June 26, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

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

While Sinwar emerged victorious, he faced considerable and surprising opposition to a second term. Sinwar’s reign in Gaza has not seen a major war between Hamas and Israel, but living conditions in the crowded, poor Gaza Strip have continued to deteriorate.

Sinwar, 58, is second only to Hamas politburo head Haniyeh in the terror group’s hierarchy. He spent decades in an Israeli prison after being convicted in 1989 of conducting the kidnapping and execution of two Israeli soldiers.

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 jail as part of the 2011 Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas.

Considered a hardliner within Hamas, Sinwar is infamous for his key role in founding Hamas’s military wing and security services. The Izz al-Din al-Qassem brigades and Majd, respectively, have committed numerous terror attacks against Israelis, as well as killing Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.

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.

Hamas Chief Ismail Haniyeh, center, speaks with Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar, left, upon his arrival on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip on September 19, 2017. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

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.

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.

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