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New Hamas chief makes first public appearance

May 8, 2017

The new leader of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh has made his first public appearance. He was elected to the position during secret elections in the organization's Shura Council over the weekend.

Senior political leader of Hamas Ismail Haniyeh
Image: picture alliance/AA/A.Jadallah

Gaza's former Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has replaced Qatar-based Khaled Mashaal as the Palestinian group's leader. Haniyeh, who also served as Mashaal's deputy for four years, is seen as a pragmatist within Hamas who will likely seek to improve the group's international standing. Unlike his predecessor, Haniyeh is also expected to remain based in Gaza.

The 54-year-old's sudden return to power is regarded as another sign of a shift within the movement that has been governing Gaza for a decade to recolate the diaspora in Gaza.

This shift is also seen as a symptom of rising financial pressure exerted by Hamas' main rival, Fatah, on the small territory with a population of two million. Led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah in recent weeks has been pushing the group to make significant concessions in Gaza.

The Hamas-Fatah rivalry

Haniyeh was born to a large family in the Shati refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City, where he still lives in a heavily guarded compound. He was first named Palestinian prime minister in 2006, after Hamas defeated the Fatah movement in elections.

Mashaal and Haniyeh in Gaza
Haniyeh (r.) replaces hardline Mashaal (l.) after a secret vote was held among top Hamas leadersImage: Reuters

Abbas rejected Haniyeh's leadership in June 2007, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.

Hamas ignored this dismissal, leaving a Haniyeh-led Hamas government in place in Gaza, while Abbas appointed a rival administration in the West Bank. Haniyeh's administration resigned in 2014, as part of a deal with Fatah to set up a transitional government for both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

With that deal later collapsing, the two political camps refuse to relinquish control in their respective territories.

A leader without autonomy

Haniyeh's leadership could now be hampered by major restrictions enforced by Israel and Egypt.

The two countries have been imposing a border blockade on Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007. The borders of the 365 square kilometer (141 square mile) autonomous zone have effectively been sealed the majority of the time.

Political leaders are able to leave the territory on certain occasions, but only with Egypt's blessing. The blockade has also hindered aid organizations from working in the area.

Despite its governance of Gaza for 10 years, Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Israel has not yet commented on Haniyeh's appointment.

Controversial first act of office

For his first appearance as Hamas leader, the new leader publicly pledged his support for hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners in his first comments while visiting a protest tent in support of the strikers.

Hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli jails have been refusing food since April 17. Israeli authorities say there are 860 hunger strikers, while Palestinian officials claim there might be almost twice as many.

"This visit is a message to our heroic prisoners that your cause was and will remain a top priority," he said, adding that Hamas continued to stand with hundreds of prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails. "Your freedom is a national duty and your dignity is our dignity," Hamiyeh said.

Mahmood Abbas & Donald Trump in Washington
Palestinian leader Mahmood Abbas, seen here with US President Donald Trump earlier in May 2017, is pushing for Hamas to cede ground in GazaImage: Reuters/C. Barria

Those on hunger strike have issued a list of demands including improved medical services, access to family visits and better detention conditions. The hunger strike is officially led by Marwan Barghouti, who as a member of Fatah is actually a representative of the rival political faction to Hamas.

Israeli authorities, however, shared video footage online on May 7 purporting to show Barghouti secretly eat in his cell. Barghouti's wife and other Palestinian officials have dismissed the video as fake.

New direction?

Last week, Hamas unveiled a new policy document easing its stance on Israel having long called for its destruction. The six-page outline supports the creation of the Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within the 1967 borders.

It rejected, however, the notion of ever recognizing Israel as a sovereign state.

"Hamas does not wage a struggle against the Jews because they are Jewish but wages a struggle against the Zionists who occupy Palestine. Yet, it is the Zionists who constantly identify Judaism and the Jews with their own colonial project and illegal entity," the document said.

Hamas also said that it would continue armed resistance as a legitimate right. It also said it would not recognize the Oslo Accords.

ss/kms (AP, AFP, dpa)

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