Without early and misleading polls and without Russian involvement, Saturday’s Hamas leadership election is a rare case of late in which the pundits’ predictions came true. The election by the organization of Ismail Haniyeh to head its politburo is expected to shift the balance of power, restoring the weight of Hamas in the Gaza Strip over the organization’s leadership outside the territories. But according to Israeli intelligence assessments, Haniyeh’s victory will not entirely override the influence of the outgoing politburo chief, Khaled Meshal, who over the past year has been giving Haniyeh a kind of preparatory workshop ahead of Haniyeh’s appointment as his successor. Meshal introduced Haniyeh to many of the world’s Arab leaders. Haniyeh will from now own be the official face of Hamas, but the bear hug of his predecessor will probably still be felt.
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Haniyeh will have to continue to maneuver cautiously and skillfully between the various countries that are trying to dictate policy to Hamas. Meshal, in the context of the instability in the Arab world, had to distance Hamas from the Iranian-Syrian axis to preserve its ties to the large Sunni countries, first and foremost Saudi Arabia and to some extent Egypt. The leadership of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, headed by Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, was not a party to these considerations and over the past two years renewed its ties with Iran, despite the danger of identifying Hamas with the Shi’ite axis in the region. Tehran also renewed its financial assistance to the military wing in Gaza. But the amount declined, and like other recipients of assistance in the Arab world, first among them the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has in recent years also had to make do with relatively little — although a good deal of the money went for military build-up.
Sinwar’s election as Hamas chief in Gaza, replacing Haniyeh, was made public a few months ago. It seems that Haniyeh will have to maneuver delicately here too, between opposite polls of influence – the military wing in the Gaza Strip and Meshal, who lives in Qatar. In principle, the military wing is more militant in its approach to Israel and tends to view terror, which it calls moqawama – resistance – as almost the be-all and the end-all. But in times of crisis, things have been known to turn upside down.
In the 2014 war in Gaza, it was actually the heads of the military wing that sought a cease-fire toward the end of the fighting, in light of the heavy military pressure by Israel, while Meshal thought that the fighting could go on. As a resident of the Gaza Strip whose life has been centered there all through the years, Haniyeh will apparently be more connected to the reality of life there than Meshal, who now lives in Qatar and before that in Damascus. He was born in the West Bank and hardly ever visits the Strip.
Israel will be closely following to see where Haniyeh sets up his headquarters as politburo chief. Relatively permanent residence in the Gaza Strip will apparently give him greater public legitimacy. On the other hand, he could find himself a prisoner in in the Gaza Strip, with his movement restricted and his freedom of action limited in case of another crisis between Hamas and Egypt, whose government of generals is far from enthusiastic about Hamas.
Hamas has completed two important processes in recent months: a round of elections to its institutions and senior positions, and formulation of a new document which does not replace the old Hamas charter, but might endow the organization with a slightly more pragmatic image with regard to Israel (especially among those who don’t look too deeply into the text).
But Haniyeh faces difficult challenges in the near future, and in confronting them he will have to take into account the positions of Sinwar and the other Hamas military leaders. Two sources of pressure can already be seen: the moves of the Palestinian Authority to reduce salary payments to its employees in the Gaza Strip, and the cessation of assistance in payments for fuel and electricity, which have already worsened the impossible situation of civilian infrastructure in the Strip.
Another important source of pressure is expected when Israel begins major engineering work on the border with the Gaza Strip to block the assault tunnels dug by Hamas.
Most Israeli intelligence officials continue to believe that Hamas does not want a military conflict in the near future because the organization has not completely recovered from the 2014 Gaza war. And yet, Haniyeh will be starting his term in complex circumstances, which have a lot in common with the situation that led to the war three years ago.