Ismail Haniyeh – A New Face Of Hamas?

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In the early hours of May 6th, 2017, longtime president of the Hamas organisation Khaled Meshaal stepped down.1. Having been elected chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau in 1996, and elected president of Hamas in 2006, Meshaal’s withdrawal from office had been by analysts and regional politicians for some time.2.Rabbani, Mouin. “Khaled Meshaal: The Making of a Palestinian Islamic Leader” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol 37, Issue 1 (Spring 2008) His replacement is 54-year old Ismail Haniyeh, a veteran of Palestinian politics.  He will likely continue the strategic doctrines of his predecessor.

The Hamas organisation came to power in Gaza in 2007, having won control of nearly one-third of all Palestinian municipal councils in the previous year’s elections.3. Taking advantage of widespread internal conflict plaguing their rival political association Fatah, which had dominated Palestinian politics for decades, Hamas seized control of the entire Gaza Strip and established their own proto-state.4.Tamimi, Azzam. “Hamas: Unwritten Chapters” Hurst & Company, 2009 Khaled Meshaal, at the time living abroad in the Syrian city of Damascus, was elected as president of Hamas following this brief spate of conflict.5.Rabbani Although severe tensions with Fatah were quickly ironed out by diplomatic overtures from both associations, an underlying current of distrust remained in the years immediately following Hamas’ takeover.6.Rabbani

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Although Meshaal remained popular and Hamas retained support from Palestinians in Gaza, his tenure as president was beset with troubles.  His critics railed against him for living abroad and for failing to bridge the gap between Fatah and Hamas. Meshaal lived in Damascus until 2012, when the violent civil conflict there forced him to relocate to Doha, Qatar.7.Rabbani Meshaal also found himself torn between appeasing the organisation’s hardline elements and advancing the more progressive voices within the political bureau; some demanded an expansion of war against Israeli and ‘Zionist’ interests, while others suggested reconciliation and an attempt at rapprochement.8. Conflict with Fatah also intensified during this period, as Fatah moved to cut Hamas off from crucial resources and reduce their access to Palestinian populations.9.Tamimi

The situation has not changed significantly since Meshaal stepped down. Haniyeh has inherited an unstable, fragmented political party and a territory suffering from electricity shortages, lack of medical supplies, and the inability to pay 40,000 civil employees removed from the official Palestinian Authority office payroll following the 2007 conflict.10. Haniyeh, however, has expressed a surprising amount of interest in cooperation and compromise with opposing forces in order to reach a solution to the most pressing of these issues. Both Haniyeh and Meshaal have agreed to accept the existence of a Palestinian state adhering to the 1967 border, and though Meshaal initially introduced this doctrinal change, Haniyeh reaffirmed his support upon assuming office.11. Though both leaders refused to accept the legitimacy of the Israeli state, the announcement expresses a significant conciliation towards Israel following years of stubborn adherence to Hamas’ original charter.

Haniyeh has also continued to attempt reconciliation with Fatah, whose leadership has constantly attempted to curtail the power of what they see as an illegitimate organisation.12. Though reconciliation attempts have been made in the past, they have consistently fallen short of achieving their goal of reuniting the two organisations.13. Hamas has always held a more belligerent position towards Israel, and has invested its scarce resources in arming its military wing Liwa Izz al-Din al-Qassam and digging smuggling tunnels into the Sinai.14.Ibid Fatah, on the other hand, has focused on establishing international diplomatic ties and negotiating tense issues with its neighbors in Israel and Jordan.15.Ibid Tensions between them have always been frosty since Hamas won power in Gaza, but Haniyeh has continued to attempt to reach out to Fatah with the ultimate aim of unifying Palestinian politics. He has recently called upon Fatah officials to take “practical steps” towards negotiations, and has expressed interest in making concessions to the Fatah leadership.16.Ibid Haniyeh has already announced his readiness to dissolve Hamas’ controversial Gaza administration; a move that would cater to demands from Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas.17. The administration, which some suspected was a move to place Hamas in full control of Gaza, has been criticized by many Palestinian officials and politicians in the West Bank.

All things considered, it appears that there will not be any radical strategy changes as Haniyeh is choosing a similar path to his predecessor. Meshaal attempted to rectify political issues with Fatah and reach out to Arab leaders throughout the region, and Haniyeh appears set to continue that trend. Though Haniyeh appears willing to make more concessions than Meshaal, their goals appear to be the same: end Hamas’ isolation in the Arab world, resist Israeli expansionism, and ensure a strong and stable Palestinian authority.

Trent Schoenborn

Trent is an analyst and contributor who has worked with the IR since its inception. He specializes in Iraqi politics and the civil war in Syria, and has been studying the latter conflict since it began. He has previously worked on Syrian Civil War Map as well as some academic research projects related to the region. He can be contacted directly at


2 Rabbani, Mouin. “Khaled Meshaal: The Making of a Palestinian Islamic Leader” Journal of Palestine Studies Vol 37, Issue 1 (Spring 2008)
4 Tamimi, Azzam. “Hamas: Unwritten Chapters” Hurst & Company, 2009
5, 6, 7 Rabbani
9 Tamimi
11, 12
14, 15, 16 Ibid
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