After Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh congratulated Yahya Sinwar on his reelection as head of the movement in the Gaza Strip Wednesday, he declared that the election delivered three messages.
"They reflect the status of Hamas on the Palestinian political map as a partner in the leadership of the national project...They show that these elections, which were held under judicial supervision, are genuine and not fake, and that holding them every four years confirms our deep faith in the principle of rotating power, which proves the seriousness of the movement toward the upcoming Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections. The movement has decided to work with the entire nation so that these elections will succeed."
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In other words, Hamas is ready for the Palestinian Legislative Council election scheduled for May and the presidential election in July. Haniyeh's remarks served as a rebuke of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, which does not hold internal elections. While Abbas' term in office officially ended years ago, he has maintained the leadership, unilaterally making all political decisions in Fatah. By contrast, Hamas leaders and officials must consult with the Shura Council, hold primaries and honor their results - at least on paper.
The election and decision-making process in Hamas rests on a hierarchical structure that is very different from that of their Fatah rivals in the West Bank. The Hamas political bureau, which has between nine and 13 members, is the most important body, making strategic decisions and representing the organization vis-à-vis international organizations and states where it has diplomatic representation such as Iran, Lebanon, Qatar, Sudan, Yemen, Algeria and Tunisia.
However, Hamas decisions must be approved by the Shura Council of 70 to 90 members, and the "small" Shura Council, comprising about 25 members, which operates as a kind of inner cabinet. The members of the Shura Council are selected from among Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Israeli prisons and the Palestinian diaspora.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that Hamas is a democratic movement that considers elections sacred and is open to changes in leadership. There has never been a transfer of power, though a political shakeup appeared to be in the cards on Tuesday. After initial reports that Nizar Awadallah won the third round of the internal election, in the fourth round - held because none of the candidates received more than 50 percent of the votes - Sinwar was elected to a second term.
According to sources in Hamas none of this came as a surprise. It was already agreed upon in earlier election rounds that incumbents such as Sinwar and Saleh al-Arouri, the head of Hamas in the West Bank, would keep their positions. But the seesawing between Awadallah and Sinwar nevertheless sent an important message to the latter. He has faced scathing criticism from both the public and within Hamas over his handling of the coronavirus crisis and failing to reach an agreement with Israel on the return of hundreds of Hamas militants incarcerated in Israel in exchange for remains of Israeli civilians and soldiers held in the Strip.
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On the other hand, Sinwar enjoys the support of Hamas' military wing, who warned that if he lost the elction, there would be conflict with the political leadership and fierce criticism from the movement's younger generation. This time the disagreements did not remain behind the scenes. Yahya Musa, a senior Hamas official, wrote a post on his Facebook page criticizing the election's "absence of transparency and integrity, because it is not grounded in the principle of equality and providing equal opportunity to each member."
Public criticism of this type is quite rare, particularly in light of the secretive election process. The election of the Shura Council, for example, which has the authority to shape the movement's policy, was held without making the results public. The intention was to also keep the elections for office holders secret until after they are over. The publication of results before a victor is declared is a departure from tradition, additional evidence of the divisions within an organization which makes great efforts to appear united, uniform and, above all, obedient.
In the next stage, Haniyeh and Khaled Meshal are expected to contest the position of the political bureau head, but in this case too, the expectation is that Haniyeh will keep his job and Meshal will be put in charge of the organization's activities and relations abroad.
Israel is familar with this old-new leadership, which is also acceptable in Egyptian eyes. Under Sinwar, Israel held indirect, Egyptian-mediated negotiations, let Qatar transfer millions of dollars a month to his administration and started implementing the ceasefire agreement, formulated with both Sinwar and Egypt. Meanwhile, Hamas claims Israel hasn’t fulfilled all of its commitments.
Cairo is expected to host next Wednesday Hamas and Fatah representatives, and leaders of other Palestinian factions for another meeting of the Palestinian National Dialogue, which began in February. They are set to discuss the upcoming elections, representation of Palestinian interests in the West Bank, Gaza and abroad, and the fulfillment of appeasement agreements between Hamas and Fatah.
Egypt has resumed activity at the Rafah border crossing in Gaza as a gesture of good will, and removed numerous limitations on crossing the Strip into Egypt. Cairo maintains constant contact with both Sinwar and Haniyeh, and relations have remained strong despite disagreements that rose in the past year. A main reason for that was Hamas’ rapprochement with Iran and Turkey.
Egypt is also trying to convince Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to shift their policy on Hamas and possibly send financial aid, breaking the Qatari monopoly on assistance to Gaza.
Hamas leadership will come to the meetings in Egypt with a renewed sense of legitimacy and a clear working agenda, whereas Fatah suffers from schism, disagreements over the election system and concerning level of popular support for the organization. This is particularly due to poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a tax payment fiasco, the reversal of a decision to end security coordination with Israel and to cut off ties with the United States, which may improve with Joe Biden in the White House.
Should the elections take place on their scheduled date, Israel could face a similar situation as in 2006 when Hamas won a sweeping election victory. But this time there would be a Palestinian government and parliament comprised of Fatah, Hamas and other factions, an American administration perhaps willing to recognize that government, and international support for it, diminishing Israel’s ability to implement its ongoing policy of separation between Gaza and the West Bank, and between Hamas and Fatah.