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The significance of electing a new Hamas leadership in Israeli prisons

Palestinian activists take part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons [File photo]
Palestinian activists take part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons [File photo]

The Central Elections Committee for Hamas prisoners held by Israel announced the end of the elections in late December for the senior leadership of the movement’s prisoners for 2019 to 2021. The elections were held in accordance with the regulations followed by Hamas prisoners and included all 22 Israeli prisons and detention centres.

The Hamas prisoner elections took place at a time of high tension between Palestinian prisoners and the Israeli prison authorities due to the almost daily raids by Israeli guards on the prisoners in their cells. The poll resulted in a new regulatory body composed of 11 prisoners, in addition to the senior leaders of the four largest prisons. The Committee is headed by Mohammed Arman.

The idea of establishing a unified leadership for Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons arose in 1995 when several discussions took place. However, the open hunger strike announced by Hamas prisoners in September 2004 was a major event that prompted a number of prisoner leaderships to form the central committee. They did so in order to present a united front to the challenges imposed by the Israeli prison authorities.

The practical initiative for the formation of the committee came from a group of Hamas leaders held by Israel: Hassan Yousef, Mohammad Al-Natsheh, Yahya Sinwar, Hassan Al-Maqadma and Abdel Nasser Issa. This was followed by the process of explaining the idea and its mechanisms to Hamas groups in every prison. The idea was not unanimously accepted, though; criticism led to some prisoners refusing to participate due to the difficulty of communication between prisons, which usually took place via lawyers or smuggled letters before prisoners started to use mobile phones smuggled into the prisons and detention centres.

READ: Israel ‘unprepared’ for new prisoner swap: Hamas

After a process lasting several months, the prisoners in central prisons elected the following 17 committee members: Mohammed Natsheh, Abdul Khaliq Natsheh, Musa Dudeen, Khaled Tafesh, Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mushtaha, Hassan Maqadma, Tawfiq Abu Naeem, Ali Al-Amoudi, Abdul Nasser Eissa, Jamal Abu Al-Hija, Talal Al-Baz, Abbas Al-Sayed, Saleh Al-Aroury, Mahmoud Issa, Jihad Yaghmour and Ahlam Al-Tamimi. Among them they elected Sheikh Mohammed Natsheh as the chairman of the committee and Abdel Nasser Eissa as the coordinator.

The Hamas prisoners’ leadership committee in Israeli prisons has accomplished three main things:

  1. Prepared regulations based on which the second round of elections was held in 2007.
  2. Completed the prisoners’ charter and participated in discussions regarding the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. It agreed with the Hamas leadership outside to name four candidates on its electoral list.
  3. It began communication with the Hamas leadership regarding prisoner exchanges, after Israeli General Ofer Dekel, who is responsible for the prisoner exchange portfolio, met with the members of the committee.

Several senior Hamas officials — namely Mohammed Jamal Natsheh, Yahya Sinwar, Rawhi Mushtaha, Othman Bilal, Abbas and Muhammad Arman — have chaired the movement’s prisoner leadership committee. The duration of each term is two years that may be extended for a few months.

Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails have a very detailed electoral process. This includes who has the right to vote and stand for office; the timeframes for committees supervising the election process; the form of the ballot; the electoral manifesto; permissible and prohibited matters; and even the announcement of the results and the subsequent period when objections are permitted, and how to deal with them.

It is customary for the Hamas prisoner elections, which began in 2004, to occur on a termly basis, with each term lasting two years. The prisons communicate with each other in order to report the results of the elections in every prison through mobile telephones smuggled in by prisoners, or through lawyers. Votes are cast in secret and electoral law prohibits the candidates from campaigning.

READ: ‘Palestinian prisoners in Israel do not get proper cancer treatment’

Each election goes through four distinct stages: 360 members representing the Hamas General Conference are chosen to elect the 51 members of the Shura Council, spread across the various prisons; the 11 members of the senior leadership committee are elected from the Shura Council members; the head of the committee is elected; and the deputy head is elected.

Those Hamas prisoners who have won the elections are prominent leaders of the Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, who are usually serving life sentences. The current president is Muhammad Arman with Abbas Al-Sayyid as deputy. The members include Salama Qatawi, Osman Bilal, Abdel Nasser Issa, Mounir Mari, Muammar Shahrouri, Moaz Bilal and Lama Khater. All have great influence within the movement due to their clear resistance and political records.

The electoral regulations of the movement allow each Hamas prisoner to participate in the elections. The head of the Hamas leadership in Israeli prisons is the actual leader of the movement inside prison. The election results are part of the Hamas leadership hierarchy. The head of the prison committee and his deputy are both considered members of the General Shura Committee, and the head of the committee is also a member of the Hamas political bureau, the movement’s highest authority.

The Hamas elections in Israeli prisons begin with the formation of central committees for each prison, with sub-committees in each section therein which supervise the elections in each one. These sub-committees are made up of three prisoners and each sub-committee submits its report to the central committee.

On polling day, the prisoners gather in the prison yard. The committee members sit at a table and have an empty ballot box before them, in which the prisoners put their voting slips. The box is then closed in front of them. In the central prisons, ballots are distributed to the prisoners through food and cleaning committees.

The Israeli Prison Service does not facilitate the electoral process. Instead, it sometimes targets those being elected by isolating them in some sections because, at the end of the day, they are forced to deal with them, as they represent the prisoners and the demands. If they do not deal with them, then the prison will face anarchy, which will only cause trouble for the authorities.

In some cases, the prison authorities regard the elections to be a Hamas internal affair, but if they feel that a “dangerous” candidate is likely to win, they try to hinder the process by transferring prisoners to other prisons until the elections are over.

The Hamas leadership is concerned with the participation of all its members in the elections without exception. Those with an imminent release date can take part, but not stand for office. This is the case for over 1,800 out of the 7,000 prisoners held by Israel from all Palestinian organisations.

READ: Israel’s treatment of Palestinian prisoners must become an international cause célèbre

Leaders are also elected by Hamas prisoners for each prison. The head and deputy head are chosen along with the heads of the security, financial, cultural and social committees. Their term lasts 6 months.

The senior leadership committee for Hamas prisoners is responsible for managing their affairs inside Israeli prisons. They represent prisoners from the West Bank, Palestinians from the areas occupied in 1948 and those from the Gaza Strip. Most of the Gaza prisoners were released by Israel, so the majority of the committee members tend to be young men with long sentences who the authorities refused to release in the last prisoner exchange deal in 2011, because they are “too dangerous”.

Although the members elected to Hamas’ senior leadership are still behind bars, they have considerable influence in the Hamas leadership outside and carry a lot of weight in the movement’s decision-making process. This is evidenced by looking at the general Hamas leadership since 2017. It is full of released prisoners, most notably Saleh Al-Arouri as deputy head of the Hamas political bureau and Yahya Sinwar, head of the movement in Gaza. The released prisoners elected onto the political bureau included Rawhi Mushtaha, Musa Dudeen, Hussam Badran and Zaher Jabarin.

Hamas's leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Al-Sinwar meets with leaders of Palestinian factions, in Gaza city on 18 October 2017 [Atia Darwish/Apaimages]

Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Al-Sinwar meets with leaders of Palestinian factions, in Gaza city on 18 October 2017 [Atia Darwish/Apaimages]

Despite the achievements made by the Hamas prisoner leadership, it has not been able to reconcile with prisoners from other movements, replicating the national split. The committee has apparently made efforts to do so on many occasions, although there are some critics who say that it did not do everything it is required to.

There are also those who believe that the leadership’s openness to the other Palestinian factions in prison is limited and less than expected. This decline is judged in the context of the committee’s high degree of openness in its early days. However, the committee believes that this criticism is exaggerated, as it is keen on building partnerships and having continuous national dialogue with all factions.

The results of the Hamas leadership elections in Israel’s prisons show that the prisoners have been able to preserve their organisational weight so that they emerge as leaders outside too. This is of great significance for the composition of the Hamas leadership in the wider movement.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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