Ismail Haniyeh has been chosen to take over from Khaled Meshaal as the head of the Hamas Political Bureau. The new top man within Hamas was born in Al-Shati (Beach) Refugee Camp, to the north west of Gaza City, in 1963; he still lives there, although he is expected to move out of Gaza into exile in order to carry out his duties. His birth came just 15 years after his family were forced out of their home in Al-Jorah, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Askala, now called Ashkelon in Israel.
The future Hamas prime minister grew up among other refugee children playing their favourite game of “Palestinians and the Occupation”, with one group standing as the oppressed people of Palestine and the other taking the role of the oppressors, the Israeli occupation forces. Along with his childhood friends, he knew exactly how the Palestinians had been massacred or forced out from their homes by the Jewish terrorists during the 1948 Nakba, the creation of the state of Israel.At the age of six, Haniyeh attended a primary school run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He studied the Egyptian syllabus, which did not include any information about Palestine or the conflict with Israel. Although he did not learn about his country’s occupation at school, he most certainly did from his mother, who taught him about his family history and hardship in great detail. The young Haniyeh’s father passed away before the boy started school.
Like many boys around the world, Ismail Haniyeh loved football — a passion which has stayed with him — and used to play with his friends on the beach. This led him eventually to Shaikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas, who had established Al-Mujamaa Al-Islami, a charity in central Gaza, which had a football pitch and was offering aid to the poor.
When he completed his secondary school, Haniyeh joined the Islamic University of Gaza, the first and still the leading Palestinian university in the Gaza Strip; it had been established in 1978 by Islamists, including Shaikh Yassin. After studying Arabic Literature, Haniyeh graduated in 1987. He started his political life as an undergraduate leading the Student Union at the IUG in 1985, which was dominated by the Islamic Bloc, the student wing of Hamas.
Haniyeh was involved in the first intifada (1987-1993), a popular uprising against the Israeli occupation which erupted after repeated aggression against Palestinian citizens and workers. In 1989, he was among the Hamas activists arrested by Israel in an effort to crack down on the intifada, which was mostly directed by the Islamic Resistance Movement. The official launch of the movement — whose Arabic acronym gives us the name “Hamas” — was announced on 14 December, 1987, just five days after the start of the uprising.
In 1992, the Israeli occupation authorities deported Haniyeh along with more than 400 other Hamas leaders and senior members to Marj Al-Zohour, a border area between Israel and South Lebanon. He was among half of the deportees who were sent back, either to a prison cell or their home.
The signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, which ended the intifada and brought into being the PLO-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1993, saw Hamas being subjected to a harsh crack down by the new authority due to the movement’s rejection of Oslo. Hamas refused to aim its weapons at the PA, which was, and remains, dominated by the secular Fatah. Instead, in 1995 it established a political party called the Islamic Salvation Party, of which Haniyeh was one of the leaders. Unlike many Hamas leaders and members, therefore, he was neither detained nor tortured by the PA.
In 1996, Haniyeh and other political officials announced that they would stand in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections, but Hamas ordered them not to. He did not abide by the order from the movement’s leaders and announced that he would still stand as a candidate. Hamas released a statement and said that Haniyeh was an independent candidate and did not represent the movement; he stood down.
When Shaikh Yassin was released by Israel as part of the deal struck following the attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshaal in 1998, Haniyeh was chosen to head the paraplegic Shaikh’s office. He thus became one of the most active Hamas officials during the second (“Al-Aqsa”) intifada, which started in 2000 after the former Israeli Prime Minister, the late Ariel Sharon, entered Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem accompanied by a heavy security presence.
During the second uprising, Haniyeh survived two failed assassination attempts while accompanying Shaikh Yassin. The Hamas founder was eventually killed in 2003 when Israel fired a missile at him in his wheelchair as he left the local mosque after morning prayers. Two years after Yassin’s martyrdom, Hamas decided to take part in the PLC elections scheduled for 2006. Haniyeh was one of the candidates and won the highest number of votes among all of the candidates of all factions across the occupied Palestinian territories.
In 2006, following Hamas’s resounding victory in the elections, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh formed the new Palestinian government. The other factions, which were shocked by Hamas’s victory (as, indeed, was Hamas), refused to join the government. After six months, Haniyeh accepted a Fatah proposal to form a national unity government, but Fatah did not concede power to Haniyeh and created chaos in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with the security forces under its control.
A faction within Fatah was funded by the US and Israel to carry out a military coup against the Hamas-led government. As the senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, Hamas tackled this pre-emptively with the help of Al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing, and swept Fatah out of Gaza. The involvement of Israel in the occupied West Bank — the Israelis arrested most of the democratically-elected Hamas MPs and ministers in the territory — meant that Fatah was able to form a government under PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Its employees in Gaza were paid by the PA in Ramallah not to go to work in an effort to make the coastal enclave ungovernable. At the same time, Israel imposed a strict siege on Gaza backed by the international community, including Egypt.
Despite such difficult circumstances, Haniyeh continued at the head of what was supposed to a national unity government and ran the Gaza Strip until April 2014, when Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement in Haniyeh’s house in Al-Shati Refugee Camp. In theory, this was meant to end the period of twin Palestinian governments, Fatah-led in the West Bank and Hamas-led in Gaza. Haniyeh officially quit as Prime Minister.
In February this year, Haniyeh was replaced as senior Hamas leader in Gaza by the freed prisoner Yahya Al-Sinwar after what was described as a secret yet democratic internal election. When, on 6 May, Khaled Meshaal announced that Haniyeh had been elected as his successor as head of the Political Bureau of Hamas, few people were really surprised.
Ismail Haniyeh has 14 children and still lives in the refugee camp in which he was born. His eldest son, Abdel Salam, is a PA loyalist and is a sports administrator in Gaza. Haniyeh has insisted that he will not leave the refugee camp unless it is to go to his late father’s home in Ashkelon. However, his new position with the political bureau will change all of that, and he is likely to move to Qatar from where he will be able to fulfil his duties and responsibilities. It is the latest phase in a remarkable career.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.