x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Hamas denies Haniyeh was secretly voted in to head Gaza bureau

Secretive elections for the group’s powerful Gaza leadership could pit incumbent reformers against more militant challengers.

JERUSALEM // A Hamas official denied a published report yesterday that Ismail Haniyeh, the Islamist group's prime minister, had been elected to head the Gaza political bureau, the territory's most powerful political institution.

The secret vote of the 15-member bureau was held in the past two weeks, the report in the Israeli daily Haaretz said, quoting unnamed Hamas officials.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum yesterday challenged the report but said he could not comment further, citing the group's strict policy of secrecy on internal matters.

Still, the conflicting accounts fueled further speculation about efforts by the Islamist group to move forward after the closing of its headquarters in Damascus and the troubles facing its two key patrons, Iran and the Syrian government of President Bashar Al Assad.

A number of notable Hamas hardliners won out in the secret local-party elections this month, according to the Haaretz report, including ideologues such as Mahmoud Zahar, members of the group's armed wing and two officials who were released last year in a prisoner-exchange with Israel.

They have been critical of the changes under the leadership of Khaled Meshaal, Hamas's outgoing leader. He helped spur the dismantling of the Damascus headquarters last year because of dismay over the Syrian government's violent repression of pro-reform demonstrators. With the support of Egypt and Qatar, he also brokered a landmark reconciliation accord last May with Hamas's rival Palestinian faction, Fatah.

Mr Meshaal has suggested Hamas could abandon armed violence and even tacitly recognise Israel.

Analysts said the party elections could determine whether Hamas hunkers down in a hardened posture or continues to go along with the reforms promoted by Mr Meshaal.

"These elections are of extreme interest and importance," said Mahdi Abdul-Hadi, founder of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs.

"Over the last year, Hamas has been affected tremendously in terms of its philosophical outlook and how it organizes itself."

Hamas does not publically disclose information about its internal votes, which are believed to be held every four years.

However, analysts familiar with them say the group initiated last month local party elections for its leadership-in-exile, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which the group controls.

Once those are completed, the group will then elect members to its Shura Council, which acts as a party parliamentary body. This organisation then selects members of the group's executive body, the political bureau, and Hamas's overall leader.

As Hamas premier, Mr Haniyeh is already one of the movement's most influential figures. By becoming head of the Gaza political bureau he will assume a position vacated by Abdel Aziz Al Rantissi, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.

Gaza's political bureau more influential since the group closed its Damascus offices. Indeed, Gaza's leaders are widely believed to have grown in power relative to the outside leadership.

However, some analysts questioned the Haaretz report and cautioned that it was too early to draw conclusions about who won the elections. Some, such as Mamoun Abu Shahla, a Gaza-based businessman who helped broker the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation pact, said moderates had come out ahead of the hard-liners.

"You can read from all the chatter about the recent elections here that the moderates won," he said

Mr Abu Shahla and other analysts maintain that Mr Meshaal may not step down as the group's leader. In January, Mr Meshaal announced he would not run for re-election in what observers at the time saw as a significant setback for the group's reformists.

Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Gaza's Al Azhar University, said Hamas leaders appeared to have rallied around Mr Meshaal.

He said this could be due to an attempted rapprochement with rivals in the Gaza Strip, such as Mr Zahar and Mr Haniyeh, who have been some the most vocal critics of Mr Meshaal's reform attempts. They also have criticised his conciliatory stance towards Fatah's chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president.

But a more plausible reason, Mr Abusada said, was that a majority of the group's members fear Mr Meshaal's ouster could damage the Hamas's public perception, particularly when it comes to Egypt and Tunisia. Islamists in these countries see Mr Meshaal as reliable, moderate ally who is important for bolstering their own images to Europe and the United States.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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