The arcane pathway to Hamas’s top post, and who might win it

For 20 years, Khaled Mashaal has been the Islamist terror group’s political boss. Is ex-Gaza PM Ismail Haniyeh about to succeed him? And how might Israel be affected?

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, left, and Gaza's former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh wave during a news conference in the Gaza Strip in 2012. (AP/Suhaib Salem, Pool)
Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, left, and Gaza's former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh wave during a news conference in the Gaza Strip in 2012. (AP/Suhaib Salem, Pool)

The deputy head of Hamas’s political wing, Ismail Haniyeh, left Gaza 10 days ago via the Rafah border crossing, supposedly on his way to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca that is required of all believing Muslims. The departure — an unusual one, it must be said — of Haniyeh, his wife, and two of their sons from Gaza gave rise to a wave of rumors there that Haniyeh (also known as Abu el-Abad) had actually left for good. The reason for this rumor was another rumor: that Hamas’s leadership intended to appoint Haniyeh as the head of its political wing, an act that would necessitate his taking up residence in Qatar.

The rumors were likely wrong, and certainly premature. While Haniyeh, 53, is considered one of the two top candidates for the position of Hamas head honcho, it will be at least a few months, and maybe a whole lot longer, before anybody knows who will take up the post. Ahmed Yousef, one of Haniyeh’s close associates and his former political adviser, said a few days ago that elections for the head of the political wing would be held in March or April 2017. We shall see.

Already, though, campaigning is under way, Hamas-style. From Saudi Arabia, Haniyeh was headed to Qatar, Iran, and Turkey, for a series of election-related meetings. Election talk is rife at the grassroots level, in mosques and local branches. Hamas’s internal leadership elections, and the specific question of who will head its political wing, are emphatically high in the minds of Hamas’s key figures and activists in the territories, in prisons, and abroad.

Understanding the inner machinations of a secretive terror group is necessarily complex. What follows is an attempt to make some sense of what’s going on, and what’s in store.

Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha, Qatar, August 2014 (screen capture: Yahoo News)
Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal in Doha, Qatar, August 2014 (screen capture: Yahoo News)

Many people consider Haniyeh the leading candidate to succeed incumbent Khaled Mashaal, 60, primarily because of where he lives — Gaza. Running against him is Moussa Abu Marzouk, 65, who already was the head of the political wing (1992-7), is now Mashaal’s deputy (along with Haniyeh), and is considered a close associate of groups belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood’s global network.

There is a third candidate, too, well known to every Hamas activist in Gaza, the West Bank, and abroad. His name is Khaled Mashaal.

As Palestinian commentators point out, Hamas’s constitution prevents Mashaal being re-elected again. But anything is possible when it comes to Mashaal (Abu al-Walid), who has held the post for 20 years. Hamas may have a hard time saying goodbye to him, almost as hard as Mashaal would have in saying goodbye to the job. As head of Hamas’s political wing, he enjoys extraordinary status not only among the Palestinians but also throughout the Middle East and the Muslim states. He and his relatives are believed to have accrued considerable property and wealth in Qatar.

Will he be prepared to step down? Quite a few experts doubt it.

And quite a few experts question whether the Hamas election process is going to much resemble democracy in the first place.

Democracy, Hamas-style

The system of elections in Hamas is complicated and largely secret. This, after all, is an Islamic extremist organization, widely regarded as a terror group.

“It starts at the level of the usra (family),” a close observer of Hamas tells us. “That’s the smallest link in the chain. It contains five to seven people, members of the same basic, secret cell of Hamas in one mosque or another. Above them is the shuba (chapter), which is made up of several usras. The usras elect the representatives in the shuba, which in turn elects representatives at the city or area level in Gaza or in the West Bank. Ultimately the majlis a-shura, the local council, is elected.”

Palestinian Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, gives a speech during a rally in Gaza City, Aug. 27, 2014. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, gives a speech during a rally in Gaza City, Aug. 27, 2014. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

There are four such local councils, with 55 members each — mini-parliaments governing Hamas activity in four sections: abroad, in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the prisons.

Each local council, in turn, selects a 15-strong “political bureau,” which governs executive activity in each area. The local councils also elect, together, an overall council, which in turn chooses a 15-member worldwide political bureau. And those 15 members elect the chief of Hamas’s political wing.

Representative of Hamas do not publicly discuss this process. But it does come up from time to time in internal conversations with acquaintances, friends and relatives. There also seem to be secret Hamas leadership members. The political bureaus, I have come to understand, each have two or three secret members in addition to the 15 who are publicly known. The identities of these secret members are known to very few. These are Hamas’s shadow people who give advice and direction behind the scenes.

The worldwide political bureau also operates an office known as al-maktab al-tanfizi, a kind of executive board that runs Hamas’s affairs at the bureaucratic level. Khaled Qadoumi, who for the past five years has been Hamas’s representative in Iran, an ambassador of sorts, is a member of this office, though he is not one of the elected members of the political bureau. Another figure who is said to have an influence over what goes on in the upper echelons of Hamas is Abu Iz Mashaal, Khaled Mashaal’s all-powerful bureau manager as well as his relative, friend, and adviser. Rumor has it that Abu Iz Mashaal was with Imad Mughniyeh, the arch-terrorist who commanded Hezbollah’s military wing, the day before Mughniyeh was assassinated in Damascus in February 2008.

The candidates

The various commentators in Gaza agree that Haniyeh is the leading contender for the top political job. This may partly reflect a long-held dream of going back to the days of Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, when Hamas’s locus of power was in Gaza, though the leadership abroad, led by Mashaal and his group, also had weight. Since the assassinations of both Yassin and al-Rantisi in 2004, most of the key decisions have been the purview of the group living abroad — in other words, Mashaal. Particularly prominent within this overseas leadership is a smaller cadre, known as the “Kuwaiti Group,” which includes close Mashaal associates Qadoumi and Osama Hamdan, both of whom have spent many years in Kuwait.

The balance of power between Hamas’s leadership abroad and its leadership in Gaza has swung like a pendulum. In the wake of the civil war in Syria and the relocation of Hamas’s leadership abroad from Damascus to Qatar, Turkey, and elsewhere, the status of the leadership in Gaza has risen, in good part, too, because of the wars it has waged against Israel.

“The leadership in Gaza chafes at a situation where high-ranking officials living abroad in luxury hotels, villas, and whatnot — acting like high-ranking Fatah officials did in Tunis in the 1980s — are making critical decisions on its behalf,” a Fatah leader told us recently.

The central issue of the elections, therefore, is: Who will run Hamas — the leadership in Gaza or the leadership abroad?

Senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk (photo credit: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouk (photo credit: AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

“It’s more than that,” says a Palestinian commentator from Gaza. “It’s the refugee camps against the West Bank. It’s the poor against the rich.”

Haniyeh was born in Gaza’s Al-Shati refugee camp, where he lives to this day. “He grew up there, attended the Islamic University, became a teacher there, and became the bureau chief of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was known for his asceticism. He knows what it means to be a Palestinian and what it means to be a refugee,” adds this commentator. “Abu Marzouk was born in Rafah, but he went to Egypt to study in the 1970s and got his doctorate in the United States. He lived in Virginia for a few years. Life in Gaza is alien to him.

“Mashaal is Mashaal. He was born in Silwad in the West Bank, moved to Kuwait at age 11, and has never been in the West Bank since,” the Gaza commentator goes on. “He lives in luxury, and there are quite a few stories about his corruption and that of his sons. So it’s obvious that high-ranking members of Hamas want to appoint ‘one of our own.’”

Hamas’s major project is definitely Gaza, the center of its power and authority. That is why the field activists want to increase Gaza’s share in decision-making and in the division of resources. Opposing them is the leadership abroad, which is not as strong as it used to be and has fewer resources and less property at its disposal. But it is still close to groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood’s global network, which give it an organizational-ideological stamp of approval as well as religious authority through figures such as Egyptian-born, Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an intellectual and spiritual figurehead of the Brotherhood. This leadership has connections throughout the Middle East as well as a network that spans the globe. Hamas opened offices in Algeria and in Tunisia only recently.

Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi speaks to a crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square, February 2, 2014 (Khalil Hamra/AP)
Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi speaks to a crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, February 2, 2014 (Khalil Hamra/AP)

“How can someone who lives in Gaza continue to run Hamas’s affairs without being able to leave Gaza?” asks a high-ranking Hamas official living abroad, in a typical response to those who would crown Haniyeh. At any moment, he points out, Egypt could decide to prevent Haniyeh leaving Gaza. Hence the desire, outside of Gaza, to appoint a leader of the political wing who lives abroad. Hence, too, that rumor that he has left the Strip for good, that he will succeed Mashaal, and that he will take up residence in Qatar.

And hence, finally, that degree of support, among some Hamas leaders abroad, for Abu Marzouk — the Rafah native who has Gaza in his blood, but isn’t stuck there.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, many Hamas leaders, worried that their high status is declining, want to see Mashaal stay on, or at worst be shifted to a different but comparable position. As a leader of Fatah told me, Mashaal’s supporters in the West Bank “would not like to see Abu Marzouk win. First, he is of Gazan origin. Second, he has been considered Mashaal’s rival for years, and would not allow Mashaal to take a position alongside him, but only beneath him.”

If the choice were between Haniyeh and Abu Marzouk, Mashaal’s supporters would vote for Haniyeh, this Fatah leader said.

Then he added: “But don’t be so foolish as to think that these are true democratic elections. The matter will be decided in the end by the global leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which dictates policy while everyone obeys. If the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership in Turkey wants Abu Marzouk, he will be elected. And that is the situation at present. They support him.”

Democracy, Hamas-style.

A change of generations

The upcoming Hamas elections, whenever they are held, will also mark a certain generational change. Members of the older, founding generation are expected to make way for the middle generation, which includes Haniyeh, Yahya Sinwar, and Khalil al-Hayya. In any case, few members of the old guard remain. In Gaza, Mahmoud a-Zahar and Ahmad Bahar are two of the few. Most of the rest have died of natural and non-natural causes.

The leadership abroad also has an interim and a new generation, including people like Mohammed Nazzal, Izat a-Rishk, Sami Khater, Mohammed Nasrallah, Saleh al-Arouri, Husam Bardan, Osama Hamdan, Khaled Qadoumi, and Ali Barakeh. The imprisoned members of Hamas have their representatives as well: Mohammed Arman, Jamal el-Hour, Abbas al-Sayed and others.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah shakes hands with senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, at Haniyeh's house in Gaza city on October 9, 2014
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah shakes hands with senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, at Haniyeh’s house in Gaza city on October 9, 2014

Israel is naturally wondering how it will be affected.

First, how might the election of Haniyeh or Abu Marzouk, or the retention of Mashaal, or perhaps the postponement of the whole election process, change Hamas’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority? Haniyeh is known for his conciliatory attitude to internal Palestinian reconciliation. That does not mean that we would see a thriving Palestinian national unity the moment he is elected, but progress in reconciliation talks between Fatah and Hamas could be expected.

As for relations with Israel, here the choice of candidates is unlikely to have dramatic significance. Haniyeh, Marzouk and Mashaal — whoever takes the top Hamas political job, Hamas will persist in not recognizing Israel. And it will continue to prepare for the next war in Gaza.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed
Register for free
and continue reading
Registering also lets you comment on articles and helps us improve your experience. It takes just a few seconds.
Already registered? Enter your email to sign in.
Please use the following structure:
Or Continue with
By registering you agree to the terms and conditions. Once registered, you’ll receive our Daily Edition email for free.
Register to continue
Or Continue with
Log in to continue
Sign in or Register
Or Continue with
check your email
Check your email
We sent an email to you at .
It has a link that will sign you in.