Surprise drama in Hamas leadership election in Gaza

The incumbent leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, was forced into a surprise runoff vote.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Yahya Sinwar, the incumbent Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, ultimately won a second term on Wednesday, but not before a surprise runoff.

After three rounds of voting, Sinwar still couldn’t claim victory against his opponent until a fourth and final round of voting was carried out on Wednesday.

 

“With transparency and integrity, everyone accepts its results,” Hamas’s Senior Political leader Ismail Haniyeh said after Sinwar won more than 50% of the vote, giving him a second four-year term.

There were originally five candidates in the secret internal vote by 320 Hamas members eligible to cast a ballot. Those whittled down to two. Sinwar faced off against senior Hamas figure Nizar Awadallah.

Both Sinwar, 59, and challenger Awadallah, 64, are known terrorists.

A convicted murderer, Sinwar spent 22 years in jail before being released in the prisoner swap for IDF hostage soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011. Seen as a hardliner who supports violence against Israel, he was elected as the head of the Hamas political wing in 2017, but has since avoided major confrontations with Israel. Sinwar is on the U.S. government list of designated terrorists.

Awadallah spent six years in Israeli jails for terror activity. He is a member of the group that founded Hamas, was close to its assassinated leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, and is seen as more extremist than Sinwar.

The internal secret elections for the chairmanship of the Hamas politburo, the overriding body that controls the terror group, are expected to take place next week.

Current chief Haniyeh is backed by Iran and the Hamas military wing leaders, including Sinwar, while former Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, who is backed by Qatar and Turkey, wants to make a comeback to the position he held until 2017.

The politburo vote is considered the more important of Hamas’ internal elections because it has regional implications, noted News1 Arab affairs analyst Yoni Ben-Menachem.

Sinwar is Iran’s man in Gaza, and in addition to his political role. he serves as the leader of the Hamas military wing Izz a-Din al-Qassam. He was close with slain Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and remains in contact with his successor, General Ismail Ka’ani.

Sources in Hamas say that Sinwar should be worried that Awadallah succeeded in undermining his position as far as he did.

Hamas has been severely criticized in Gaza for the failure of protests on the Gaza border, Sinwar’s inability to break the joint Israel-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip and the deadlock in talks with Israel over a new prisoner exchange deal.

Despite his violent history, Sinwar has shown a pragmatic approach in the last four years during which he maintained good relations with Egyptian intelligence and supported the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire understandings with Israel. He has also been careful to maintain Qatar’s monthly cash injection to Gaza while continuing the process of strengthening Hamas’ military.

Under Sinwar, Izz a-Din al-Qassam has continued both smuggling weapons into Gaza and developing new home-grown weapons, building military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border and developing the power of the Hamas naval commandos, who are supposed to land a “strategic surprise” on Israel.

The Hamas elections take place every four years, and the select few who can vote are located in Gaza, Judea and Samaria, in foreign countries like Qatar and Turkey that give shelter to Hamas officials, and among the elite Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons.

If Khaled Mashaal is re-elected head of the new political bureau next week, it will be a blow to Shiite Iran and a victory for the Sunni “Muslim Brotherhood” backers led by Qatar and Turkey, but could increase tension in Gaza over the previous infighting between Mashaal and Sinwar.