Ismail Haniyeh was elected Saturday as the head of Hamas' politburo, replacing Khaled Meshal, who held the position since 2004.
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Meshal stepped down at the end of his term limit just as Hamas softened its stance toward Israel in a new policy document last week. Addressing the change, Meshal said "we are all certain that the new leadership will lead the organization wisely for the benefit of the Palestinian people. I am sure the new leadership will lead a policy of cooperation and will work to release the prisoners and lift the siege [on Gaza]. "
Israel did not respond to the news.
The Islamic Jihad, a radical Palestinian Islamist group in Gaza, congratulated Haniyeh on his election, but in an earlier statement they said they rejected Hamas' new charter, especially its willingness to accept a future Palestinian state along the 1967 borders.
One senior Fatah official, Azzam Al-Ahmed, wished Haniyeh "good luck" and called on him to make an effort to end the Palestinian divisions, Reuters reported, noting that Al-Ahmed also said Hamas must give up its control of Gaza, something Haniyeh has refused to do.
Haniyeh’s election came as no surprise in the Palestinian political world because he was considered a front runner over fellow candidates Mohammad Nazal and Musa Abu-Marzuq – the latter having previously served as Hamas’ chairman.
When Haniyeh’s name came up as leading candidate a few months ago it seemed that he also had broad support from the movement’s military wing, headed by Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa. Haniyeh now has two main issues to deal with: the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority, integrating Hamas into the PLO institutions.
The role of political bureau chief has been considered key in Hamas since the 2004 assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was the movement’s supreme spiritual and political authority. Since that time, the head of the political bureau has been the most senior position in Hamas. Out-going bureau chief Khaled Meshal said he had been offered other senior posts in the movement, but had declined. Meshal said that from now on he would be a regular member of the Shura Council - Hamas' leadership body - without a representative or administrative function.
The appointment of Haniyeh, who lives in the Gaza Strip’s Shati refugee camp, shows that the movement’s main anchor is in the Strip. Two months ago a senior official in Hamas, Yahya Sanwar, was elected head of Hamas in the Strip. Now people in the movement wonder if Haniyeh will stay in the Strip or head for Doha, the capital of Qatar, where most of Hamas’ world leadership lives.
A senior Hamas official told Haaretz that it is believed that Haniyeh will divide his time between Qatar and the Strip, because he will need to hold many policy meetings and it will be hard for him to remain “imprisoned” in Gaza, where he is at the mercy of Egypt’s opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt so he can go abroad. Earlier this week Haniyeh and a number of members of the Hamas political bureau were to have gone to Doha, but they had to remain in Gaza because the crossing was closed.
Haniyeh’s election marks the end of the reorganization process in Hamas, after the election of regional representatives and the publication of the movement’s new charter. The process of internal elections in Hamas usually takes place far from the limelight and is not covered by the media. According to officials in Hamas, the election of the political bureau chief is held at the last stage, after the election of the movement’s institutions, the advisory parliament – the Shura Council, and the political bureau, consisting of 18 members. The members of the political bureau are chosen from among three groups – six from the Gaza Strip, six from the West Bank and six from abroad. The bureau chief is the 19th member.
At the beginning of last week, Hamas presented its new charter at a press conference in Qatar. According to the document, the organization will accept the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 boundaries without recognizing Israel. According to officials in Hamas, it was decided to officially present the document now, close to the time of the meeting in Washington between President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. It is believed that this was an attempt by Hamas to appear as an influential force in the international arena and as a pragmatic organization.