The selection of Ismail Haniyeh as Hamas’ new political chief caps a long process of internal elections and reorganization that includes the crowning of militant commander Yahya Sinwar as the group’s head in the Gaza Strip. The Haniyeh announcement came soon after Hamas unveiled its tweaked charter, which was presented last week by the outgoing political chief, Khaled Meshal.
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While Hamas may be celebrating, these achievements are unlikely to improve Gazans’ lives or, at least for the moment, advance Hamas’ reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas.
Starting this week, Haniyeh and Sinwar the latter is considered the movement’s strongman are Hamas’ leading political figures. Both live in Gaza, a fact that gives the new leadership there much more weight vis-à-vis the Palestinian leadership beyond the Strip.
While Meshal visited Gaza only once, in 2012, Haniyeh is expected to rack up frequent-flier miles traveling back and forth to Doha, the capital of Qatar, where most of the group’s leaders abroad are based. This means Haniyeh’s relationship with Hamas' leaders in the Strip, including the military leaders, will be direct, with an emphasis on figures such as Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa.
But that can only happen if, and it’s a big if, Egypt lets Haniyeh into its territory every time he seeks to leave or return to Gaza. Cairo could exact a price for this privilege in the form of changes to the group’s relationship with countries such as Iran, Qatar and Turkey as well as Egypt itself.
The new leadership lineup strengthens the hawks in Hamas, especially the military wing a discouraging development for the supporters of internal Palestinian reconciliation. Sinwar has said conciliation won't be possible as long as Abbas remains PA chief, and two months ago he announced the creation of an administrative council for Gaza that’s expected to lead to a head-on collision with Abbas and the PA.
A senior PA official told Haaretz that Meshal actually belongs to Hamas’ more pragmatic and flexible faction, while Haniyeh is considered under the thumb of the military wing. As a result, Ramallah is pessimistic about the possibility of internal reconciliation, the official said.
Still, at some point, leaders in Hamas and Fatah alike will have to make decisions about their shared future.
Ordinary Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank understand that the two organizations are locked in a struggle over power and positions rather than national independence and self-determination. They realize that Hamas' and Fatah's actions could lead to both an internal blowup and a direct confrontation with Israel.
Haniyeh, who now has a mandate to govern Hamas for years, must prove he’s a leader of the Palestinians, not the head of a militia that controls the area between Beit Hanun and Rafah. This need, along with the inevitable internal and regional forces and pressure, will eventually force him to make important decisions that will prove he’s a genuine leader, not a puppet.
By the same token, Abbas too will be forced to reckon with Hamas and its chief, now that he has secured his bona fides in Fatah and abroad after his visit to the White House. The question is whether Abbas and Haniyeh can overcome their egos and lust for power and achieve a reconciliation that will also improve the Palestinians’ position abroad.