Hamas is choosing a new leader.
Hamas’ elections are unconventional. They are modeled after the Muslim Brotherhood system, where candidates don’t put themselves forward (indicating an unbecoming power hunger) but are rather nominated for the post.
The elections are surrounded by great secrecy, and only senior Hamas leaders participate in the actual choice: there are no rallies or door-to-door electioneering. Instead, candidates rely on lobbying behind closed doors and building under the table alliances.
Many Hamas officials regard this as the most important election in the group’s history. The winner was expected to be declared by the end of January 2021, but the raging COVID pandemic in Gaza may mean a delay in the results until May. But the campaigning for the top spot, and the rivalry between would-be leaders with differing strategic outlooks on Israel, the use of violence and Iran, started a full year ago.
It was last December when Ismail Haniyeh, currently Hamas’ top political leader and candidate in the 2021 election left for a grand tour. It was his first foray outside of Gaza since his election as the head of Hamas’ political bureau in 2017.
Few thought Egypt, which keeps close tabs on the Hamas elite, would let their top leader venture out beyond Cairo. However, Cairo abruptly green-lit a six-month global trip, conditional on Haniyeh staying away from Iran (he didn’t).
Egyptian intelligence most likely realized that Haniyeh’s travel wouldn’t stir trouble, but would rather contribute to winning a key Egyptian strategic objective: that the trip would bolster Haniyeh in the upcoming elections, thus ensuring the movement’s top leadership would stay Gaza-based, and therefore under Egypt’s watchful eye.
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To convince his peers in Hamas that he’s the best man for the post, Haniyeh needed to produce tangible results during his tour. He stopped by Malaysia, Oman, Russia, Turkey, Qatar, Iran and Lebanon – all with the tactical objectives of trying to raise funds, expand or fix the movement’s relations, and showcase his statesmanship.
But he hasn’t achieved the big results he wanted. In the hope of plowing on towards a grandstanding success to boost his image, Haniyeh has extended the tour: he now doesn’t intend to return to Gaza until the election results are announced.
Haniyeh is shifting his focus to what he considers the paramount necessity to keep Hamas’ top office in the hands of its Gaza’s branch. But this won’t be an easy sell, or an easy race in general.
Hamas leaders expect a very tight race between the key proponents of the movement’s three prominent currents.
Ismail Haniyeh represents the pragmatist current. That camp pursues the clearest route to immediate results in the here and now – regardless if those outcomes are produced violently or non-violently. The Haniyeh stream would be as comfortable negotiating with Netanyahu to offer calm in return for Qatari cash, as it would threatening him with Hamas rockets that can "destroy Tel Aviv and beyond."
Saleh al-Arouri – although relatively pragmatist in some respects – represents a hardline current, one that adheres to a rigidly Islamist ideology, viewing the conflict through a religious lens. His is a camp more willing than others to resort to violence and considers Iran to be Hamas’ indispensable ally.
The third candidate, Khaled Meshal, is the sole hope of the moderate current. His school of thought values engagement with the international community; they are open to softening the movement’s positions and prioritize non-violent resistance. The moderates prioritize the pursuit of long-term to improve Hamas’ relations in the Gulf and Arab world, rather than with Iran.
But this camp, clearly the most attractive option for Israel and for the West, is in deep trouble.
Meshal became Hamas chief at the end of the second intifada. The moderate current put their lives on the line to persuade their peers that greater moderation would open avenues for greater engagement with the international community. At the end of Meshal’s term in 2017, his camp made a similar bid for moderation, producing a new charter that removed anti-Semitic rhetoric, endorsed the PLO and offered a more explicit acceptance of the two-state solution – without recognizing Israel.
Both gambles failed. The international community ignored them, and Israel blasted the extremism of the moderates. The moderate wing suffered immeasurable damage, crippled and sidelined by its unrequited efforts, and laid the path for the harder line Haniyeh to succeed Meshal.
The trend of marginalizing and shunning Hamas’ moderates continued for the four years afterwards as violent hardliners, such as Fathi Hammad, rose to prominence, who liked to use incendiary balloons to pressure Israel to ease the blockade on Gaza, and trigger another influx of Qatari cash.
The 2021 election is the moderates’ last chance to regain the upper hand. And Meshal is doing his best to make a comeback, including placing paid advertisements on the internet.
With the incoming Biden administration and its Mideast policies on many peoples’ minds in the region, Meshal has taken the initiative and extended a hand towards the new president, stating in a seminar Tuesday that, "We [in Hamas] understand that there is a new administration led by Biden coming on the ruins of the strange Trump administration, and we would engage with it sensibly and steadily."
But as the competition heats up, it now revolves around which nominee can actually produce tangible results, at a time when Hamas’ popular support and financial situation are in decline.
Three core issues will determine the outcome of the Hamas election. Which candidate, and which camp, can ‘own’ the issues will be crucial.
First, diplomacy and breaking the movement’s isolation. This should be the best political capital for moderates to demonstrate their relevance; they have recently shown more openness and eagerness than ever to engage in dialogue with, for instance, Europe and solidarity movements, even Jewish peace groups, concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Second, a prisoner swap with Israel. Hamas holds two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers; in a possible exchange, Hamas would win the release of a significant number of Palestinian detainees and the easing of the blockade. That would lend credence to the more militant-minded in the movement who believe that Israel only understands force.
Finally, Israel’s siege on Gaza – which renders it uninhabitable and has cost its economy more than $16 billion in the last decade – is the most central issue. Whoever can prove their ability to challenge Israel’s blockade would gain a significant popularity boost.
Israel could tacitly assist or destroy a moderate candidate’s victory. For instance, instead of occasionally allowing the tentative easing of the blockade to stop incendiary balloons targeting border communities, Israel could allow a far more sustainable improvement of life in Gaza as part of a truce negotiated with Hamas’ moderates.
That would signal to the group’s leadership that moderation is rewarded with amelioration, rather than the current widely-held conviction that periodic surges of provocative violence are rewarded by Qatari cash as a tactic of containment.
For Israel’s government, the current status quo is convenient. But Netanyahu’s government should beware that its polices on Gaza at this critical moment are far more likely to produce a more extremist Hamas in the upcoming election, and that may upset the cosy undestandings that Netanyahu has enjoyed.
For instance, as Gaza is ravaged by the pandemic, Israel has put out strong signals that the population’s survival is contingent upon Hamas returning the Israeli captives. Despite pushback Monday from parts of the right-wing, the insistence on a prisoner swap can only incapacitate the moderates and fuel the hardliners, who view violent escalations and hostage-taking as the way to get Gaza’s urgent needs answered.
The pressure for an exchange is more likely as a fourth Israeli election in two years looms, leading to the usual competitive rhetoric of who can pledge greater deterrence and harsher restrictions on Gaza.
Netanyahu's recent solidly transactional relationship with Hamas – in which the group provides calm in return for easing the blockade – shows that Hamas is less a security threat to Israel, but rather a risk. Security threats imply an immediate need to confront, uproot and eradicate them.
But Bibi has been clear that he's not going to uproot Hamas in Gaza, because Palestinian division is far more useful. In his own words, he doesn’t want to "give [Gaza] to Abu Mazen."
Risks, on the other hand, rather than being a drastic state of emergency, can be managed and mitigated over the long term, even involving unconventional and sometimes paradoxical political behavior – and the risks rather than threat framing has been Netanyahu's clear approach towards Hamas, at least during the last three years.
The competition between Hamas factions is intense enough without Israel putting its finger on the scale on behalf of the hardliners. As Israel is clearly uninterested in taking responsibility for the occupied , besieged population of Gaza, it should at the very least not cause it further harm to Gaza (and to itself) by incentivizing a more radical, pro-Iranian and violent Hamas.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2