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Hamas elections expose intergenerational power struggle

The internal conflict between the old guard and the new won’t end at the ballot box and will continue to shape critical developments within the ranks of leadership in Gaza.

Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya and Yahya Sinwar march during a protest in Gaza City on June 26, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90
Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya and Yahya Sinwar march during a protest in Gaza City on June 26, 2019. Photo by Hassan Jedi/Flash90
David Hacham
David Hacham

The Palestinian arena is presently being shaped by two simultaneous election processes, and this has dramatic consequences for the future of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

The upcoming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council (the Palestinian Authority parliament that Israel was party to setting up during the Oslo Accords) are scheduled to take place in May. A recent meeting of the Palestinian factions in Cairo, in which an agreement was concluded between the parties over the principal parameters of the elections, is an indication that both Fatah and Hamas remain on course to hold the ballot despite clear reservations within Fatah over the risks inherent in the process.

Meanwhile, Hamas has completed internal elections for its leadership institutions in the Gaza Strip, while these are ongoing in the West Bank, overseas and within Israeli jails. Three candidates are running for the supreme political bureau: Ismail Haniyeh, the incumbent; Salah Al-Arouri, Haniyeh’s deputy; and Khaled Mashaal, who previously held the position. These elections are held every four years.

While Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in Gaza managed to retain his position as head of the Gazan political bureau, he was nearly unseated by rival Nizar Awadallah, representing the Hamas old guard, in what would have been a dramatic upset in a vote in which Sinwar had been considered a sure winner.

It took four rounds for the 59-year-old to assure a majority, meaning that he came close to being defeated after just a single term. Former Hamas political bureau chiefs have usually completed the maximum two terms.

Awadallah has distanced himself from the public spotlight, acting behind the scenes and in the shadows. Like Hamas senior members Mahmoud Al-Zahar and Ismail Haniyeh, Awadallah was part of the inner circle of Hamas’s founding father, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He has a degree in civil engineering from an Egyptian university and was a lecturer at the Gaza Islamic University.

Awadallah is a powerful figure in the ultra-dogmatic and more radical faction within Hamas, and has acted as the head of the Al-Mujama Al-Islami social, religious and charity organization that was the organizational-ideological foundation of Hamas.

During his youth, prior to the First Intifada, he headed the military branch of Al-Mujama, the Mujahadin al-Filastayeen (the Palestinian Holy Warriors). After the start of the intifada, he was active in Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades.

He was arrested many times by Israel during and after the First Intifada due to his involvement in terrorism, serving multiple jail terms between 1989 and 1996. His home was twice bombed by the Israel Air Force—during “Operation Cast Lead” (2008-09) and “Operation Protective Edge” (2014).

Awadallah played a prominent role in the Hamas negotiations delegation that was active in the agreement with Israel to exchange captive Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011.

Despite Sinwar’s eventual success, the Hamas Gaza elections exposed deep tensions between himself and internal rivals within the organization.

Sinwar’s struggle for re-election has shined attention on the power dynamics within Hamas’s leadership, specifically, between the old guard, who were founders of the movement and now feel sidelined, and the intermediate generation that Sinwar represents.

Sinwar’s generation includes Muhammad Def and Marwan Issa, who head the Hamas military wing.

Sinwar also faces opposition by high-ranking outside members, like Salah Al-Arouri.

These elements have leveled severe criticism at Sinwar, perceiving him as failing to function properly and lacking tangible achievements. From their perspective, the latest election sounded a clear warning to Sinwar over issues such as the quality of life in Gaza, the failed attempt to pressure Israel with “return marches to break the siege,” the failed tactic of incendiary balloons and kites launched at Israel’s south, and rocket fire across the border with Israel. None of these efforts have amounted to anything, and Sinwar had to abandon them more than a year ago.

Sinwar has been regarded by some in Hamas as being more of a “military” leader than a “political” one. His brutality has never been in question; Sinwar murdered a Hamas operative in Gaza who was released in the Shalit deal after accusing him of collaborating with Israel.

Some internal critics of his suspect that he has grown too close to the Egyptian General Intelligence Service at the expense of ties with Iran, with which Sinwar’s rivals have closer ties.

The fact that Sinwar has also failed to secure a new prisoner-exchange deal with Israel, despite holding captive two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two fallen IDF soldiers, has also exposed him to internal criticism. This is why, during his victory speech, Sinwar stressed his intention to release Palestinian prisoners in Israel as quickly as possible.

Ultimately, Sinwar is interested in continuing his more calculated and apparently pragmatic line when it comes to Israel, prioritizing the alleviation of Gaza’s economy and humanitarian situation, obtaining increased aid supplies and ensuring continued Qatari civilian funding. To that end, he has understood that he must significantly decrease military confrontation with Israel for the time being.

One can assume that Sinwar will continue to show a degree of flexibility and restraint, while at the same time taking the criticism he faces inside his movement.

The rocky path that led Sinwar to victory means that tensions are sure to continue within the Islamist movement, and that its multiple power centers will compete to influence future strategy, including over the eternal question of when to engage in conflict with Israel, as well as how to position itself regionally and internationally. This, despite the fact Hamas’s core ideology remains entirely unchanged and is unlikely to change.

The power struggle between the old guard as represented by Awadallah and the intermediate generation—of which Sinwar is the prominent representative—won’t end with elections and will continue to shape critical developments within Hamas.

IDF Col. David Hacham (Ret.) is a former adviser on Arab affairs to seven Israeli Ministers of Defense, including Moshe Arens and Moshe Ya’alon. He is a publishing expert at:

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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