In order to appreciate the unprecedented scope and severity of the rift between Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and the group’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, we have to go back in time to when the terrorist organization’s political bureau was headquartered in Damascus, before the Syrian civil war.
Khaled Mashaal, who headed the political bureau at the time, was the strongest person in the organization and had ultimate say on matters, mainly due to the fact that he controlled the group’s financial assets. And because he was operating out of Syria, he was able to do something Haniyeh is not—travel the world, mostly to Arab and Persian Gulf countries who donated their money generously.
Senior Palestinian officials in Gaza and Ramallah attest that ever since Hamas’s inception in the late 1980s there has always been an atmosphere of structured tension between the group’s military and political wings. However, the chasm between the organization’s two strongest leaders has never been deeper.
The fact that both Haniyeh and Sinwar are based in Gaza is essentially unprecedented. Both are charismatic and persuasive, but their interests—whether public or personal—are different, and they want to overshadow one another. The primary claim by Haniyeh’s cohort against Sinwar is that the latter has promoted and empowered members of the military wing at the expense of Haniyeh and the political bureau.
Mashaal and his predecessor, Moussa Abu Marzouk (who Mashaal appointed as his own deputy), worked in perfect harmony opposite the group’s representatives in Gaza and the West Bank. The fact that both spent the majority of their time abroad and couldn’t enter Gaza or the West Bank exacerbated the segregation between the political and military wings.
Hamas, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, became the target of Arab regimes in the wake of the Arab Spring, and the presence of its most senior leaders in these countries went from being an asset to a burden. It was not for nothing that after Mashaal’s resignation and Haniyeh’s appointment to helm the political bureau, Haniyeh’s deputy, Saleh Arouri, established his headquarters in ethnically divided Lebanon.
Arouri’s efforts to ensconce the political bureau’s main headquarters in Beirut, however, failed because most of its senior officials—those not in Gaza or the West Bank under constant fear of being killed by Israel or the Palestinian Authority—had already found convenient working environments in countries such as Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan.
Despite Hamas’s efforts to project unity, it’s no secret that an epic struggle for control is raging within its ranks. Haniyeh, like his predecessor Mashaal, still controls the organization’s financial resources. Sinwar, however, who controls the military resources, was the one who ultimately enlisted Qatar to transfer nearly $15 million in cash per month to Gaza for the past six months.
Attempts by various elements within the organization, among them Mashaal and senior clerics, to mediate between Haniyeh and Sinwar have thus far been for naught, and only time will tell whether the current leadership crisis mostly serves Israel and plays into its hands, as many in Hamas claim.