October 26, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 893

Upheavals In Hamas In Wake Of Arab Spring: Center of Leadership Shifts To Gaza

October 26, 2012 | By C. Jacob*
Palestinians | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 893


Though the popular revolutions in the Arab world have not reached Gaza, the Arab Spring has nevertheless had a significant impact on the Hamas movement and the status of its leaders. The changes and developments in the Arab world have compelled the movement, headed by Khaled Mash'al, to take a more pragmatic stance vis-à-vis Israel and a more conciliatory tone vis-à-vis its rival Fatah, while, at the same time, turning its back on the elements that were once its staunchest allies, namely the Syrian and Iranian regimes. This policy of Mash'al's sparked intense opposition within Hamas, leading to internal clashes between him and the Hamas leaders in Gaza, such as Isma'il Haniya and Mahmoud Al-Zahhar.

In the near future, Hamas is to reelect a new Political Bureau head after Khaled Mash'al has announced his retirement. These elections will take place in the shadow of internal differences over the political course that was taken by the movement under Mash'al's leadership.

At the moment, there are two top contenders for Mash'al's post: Isma'il Haniya, who represents the "inside" Hamas (i.e., the Hamas leadership inside Gaza), and Moussa Abu Marzouq, who represents the "outside" Hamas (i.e., the Hamas leadership outside Palestine) – and the identity of the winner is likely to impact the future course of the movement.

This report discusses the reasons for Mash'al's retirement, the outcome of the internal elections in Hamas, which began in April 2012, and the implications of these developments in terms of the movement's power structure and orientation.

Outgoing Hamas Political Bureau Head Khaled Mash'al

Image:, July 1, 2012

Mash'al: I Will Not Run For Reelection

At a conference of the Hamas Shura Council that took place in Sudan in December 2011, and was attended by Mash'al, Haniya, and Hamas representatives from various regions inside and outside Palestine, it was decided to found a new movement called "the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Palestine." This was meant to facilitate the establishment of a new party that would run for the PA parliament and also field a presidential candidate, after the example of the MB-affiliated parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Since this party would be officially independent of Hamas and thus free of its terrorist image, the West would have no cause to boycott the elections as it did the PA elections in 2006.[1] However, the new movement and the party have not yet been founded, though Hamas official Ahmad Yousuf has called to expedite the party's establishment.[2] But the bombshell in the conference was Mash'al's announcement that he would not run for reelection as head of Hamas's Political Bureau, though he emphasized he would continue to serve his people, his movement and the Palestinian cause.[3]

Mash'al's Reasons For Stepping Down

Decline In Status Of "Outside" Hamas As Result Of Rift With Syria, Iran

Mash'al's surprising decision sparked much speculation as to his motivations. It seems that his decision was motivated primarily by the decline in the status of the "outside" Hamas, which he heads. The main cause of this decline was the loss of Syria as the haven of the Hamas leadership abroad. This leadership was compelled to leave Syria after it took a neutral stance on the revolution there, which was later replaced by explicit support for this revolution. This created a rift between Hamas and the Assad regime, to the extent that the official Syrian television station accused Hamas of "selling out the resistance [camp]." Hamas official Ahmad Yousuf said in response that Syria had "burned its bridges with Hamas and severed all relations with it." [4]

The tension with Syria, and Mash'al's rapprochement with PA President Mahmoud 'Abbas, also precipitated a decline in Mash'al's relations with Iran, to the extent that Iranian media associated with Supreme Leader Khamenei accused him of behaving "like an Israeli agent."[5] Another indication of the tension between Mash'al and Iran was the Iranian decision to convey aid to Gaza via the leaders of the "inside" Hamas, who have made several visits to Tehran in the past year. The rift with Syria and Iran was a sore blow to Mash'al, who was compelled to seek allies other than these two countries. As part of his efforts in this direction, he settled in Qatar, and also improved his relations with Jordan and visited Turkey.

Decline In Mash'al's Authority Within The Movement

Another factor in Mash'al's decision to step down was the deterioration of his authority in the Hamas movement following the signing of the February 2012 Doha agreement (on the implementation of the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation). Hamas leaders in Gaza, chief among them Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, criticized Mash'al for signing the agreement without consulting them, and rejected various specifics of the agreement, such as the decision to establish a national unity government headed by Mahmoud 'Abbas. Their opposition has prevented the implementation of the agreement, thus undermining Mash'al's authority as the leader of Hamas.[6]

The decline in his status was apparent in criticism directed against him by Gazan leaders. Hamas sources told the London daily Al-Hayat that Gazan leaders, especially Mahmoud Al-Zahhar and Khalil Al-Haya, had accused him of being "politically incompetent and of making unreasonable concessions in order to achieve a reconciliation with the PA and Fatah, in addition to his [unacceptable] position on a settlement with Israel" (i.e., his consent to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and to waging popular resistance in the present stage).[7]

Apparently, now that they receive direct funding from Iran, the Hamas leaders in Gaza have decided to regain their primacy in the movement's leadership. Taking advantage of the freedom of movement allowed them by the new Egyptian regime, they have also improved their relations with the Arab countries, as evident from Haniya's official visits to various countries, where he received a king's welcome.[8]

After Mash'al announced his intention to retire, many urged him to reconsider, but he barely responded to these calls. According to some reports, he said he would continue in his post if the movement unanimously called upon him to do so, but, upon failing to receive such unanimous support, he decided to stick to his original plan.[9] It was also reported that Hamas leaders in Gaza, chief among them Haniya, had told him he could only continue in a symbolic capacity and under their authority, an option he declined.[10]

Pressure From Abu Marzouq

In addition, Mash'al is also facing pressure from his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouq, who, as mentioned, is a leading candidate to succeed him as Political Bureau head. Abu Marzouq has pointed out that the Hamas by-laws limit the Bureau head to two terms in office, whereas Mash'al has already served four (Hamas justified this by evoking "special circumstances" faced by the movement and the Palestinian people, such as the 2008 Gaza War).

The Impact Of The Arab Spring Revolutions

Mash'al's decision may also be aimed at demonstrating that his support for the Arab Spring revolutions is not hypothetical, as evident from his willingness to step down, unlike the Arab tyrants who refused to leave their seats. Mash'al has indeed expressed a desire to set a democratic example in the spirit of the Arab Spring and to inject new blood into the movement, and has said he is willing to serve Hamas as a simple soldier, not only as a commander.[11] Also, there is fear that the Arab Spring will ultimately reach Gaza, and this may have prompted Mash'al to bow out when he felt his authority slipping.

Who Will Be Mash'al's Successor?

As mentioned, the main contenders for the post of Political Bureau head are Isma'il Haniya and Moussa Abu Marzouq. The latter's advantage is that he served in this post until 1996, when he was forced to resign after being arrested in the U.S. Haniya's advantage is the prominence he has gained in the movement – both as the leader of Hamas in Gaza and the winner of the internal elections there, and as a Palestinian leader who has been welcomed with honor in various Arab capitals. The question is whether the Hamas top institutions (the Shura Council and Political Bureau) will decide to keep the post in the hands of the "outside" Hamas, or else make a change and select a figure from Gaza.

A decisive factor will be the position of the global MB on this question. Until recently, the prevailing estimation was that the MB supports Mash'al for another term in office. However, in September 2012, two delegations – one representing the "outside" Hamas and another representing Hamas in Gaza – visited Egypt and met with MB leaders, who failed to bridge the disagreements between them. According to some reports, the issue of the Political Bureau head was discussed at these meetings, and the MB representatives favored Abu Marzouq (though it is unclear if they chose to back him because Mash'al insisted on leaving, or if their backing of Marzouq was one of the factors that caused Mash'al to stick to his decision to step down). In any case, the MB presumably prefers a candidate from the "outside" Hamas, who will continue to be subject to MB influence, in contrast to a Gazan candidate, who is likely to be more independent.[12]

Hamas Prime Minister Isma'il Haniya

Image:, January 8, 2012

Hamas Political Bureau Deputy Head Moussa Abu Marzouq

Image:, May 31, 2012

Internal Elections In Hamas

In accordance with a decision taken at the December 2011 conference in Sudan, April 2012 saw the beginning of elections for the Hamas institutions. The elections were held among Hamas members in three voting districts – Gaza, the prisons in Israel, and the diaspora – each of which elected a group of local representatives. As for the West Bank, which is ruled by the PA, Hamas decided not to hold elections there but rather to appoint the representatives from this district. The members of the Hamas Shura Council are to be selected from among the representatives elected (or appointed) in these four districts, and the Shura Council is to elect the Political Bureau and its head from among its own members.

The outcome of the election in Gaza was a landslide victory for Isma'il Haniya, the head of the Hamas administration there, and the next biggest winner was Political Bureau member 'Imad Al-'Alami, who recently came to Gaza from Syria. The new political leadership in Gaza includes members of the old guard (e.g., former Hamas foreign minister Mahmoud Al-Zahhar; Political Bureau members Nizar 'Awadallah, Khalil Al-Haya and 'Imad Al-'Alami, and Al-Qassam Brigades commander Ahmad Al-Ja'bari), as well as representatives of the intermediate and younger generations (e.g., released prisoners Yahya Al-Sinwar and Ruhi Mushtaha, and Al-Qassam Brigades veteran Marwan 'Issa).[13] A noticeable feature of the results is the prominence of Al-Qassam Brigades members, commanders and political leaders (e.g., Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad, 'Imad Al-'Alami and Ahmad Ja'bari), and prisoners released as part of the Shalit deal (e.g., Yahya Al-Sinwar and Ruhi Mushtaha).[14]

Hamas leader Yahya Al-Sinwar


Hamas leader Ruhi Mushtaha

Image:, May 5, 2012

The Gaza elections have strengthened the hard-liners in the movement at the expense of the moderates. Among those considered hard-liners are Fathi Hamad, Mahmoud Al-Zahhar, and also Haniya, whose positions have become more extreme lately. All of these leaders have expressed "maximalist" views ("Palestinian from the river to the sea") and have visited Iran, to Mash'al's consternation.[15]

As for the elections in the diaspora (for the "outside" Hamas), no results have so far been published, though one report names Moussa Abu Marzouq as the winner.[16] The elected head of the leadership in the prisons is arch-terrorist 'Abbas Al-Sayyid, mastermind of the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya, Israel.[17]

Implications Of The Changes In Hamas And Of Mash'al's Departure

The decline in the status of Khaled Mash'al and of the "outside" Hamas in the last year softened the impact of Mash'al's departure, because, even if he had stayed, he would have probably had little influence on the movement's orientation. Today the tone-setters in the movement are the Gazan leaders. Therefore, even if Mash'al's successor turns out to be Abu Marzouq, whose positions are similar to Mash'al's, he will most likely have difficulty steering the movement as he pleases, since the center of power has shifted to Gaza.

At present and in the near future, it seems that the departure of Mash'al – who was an enthusiastic supporter of inter-Palestinian reconciliation and was even willing to accept a national unity government headed by Mahmoud 'Abbas – spells the continued stagnation of the reconciliation process. With Mash'al gone and the Gazan leaders opposed to the reconciliation agreement, the implementation of this agreement seems highly unlikely.

Nor is there any guarantee that the Hamas leadership will continue to pursue a relatively pragmatic line, as Mash'al has done in the past year when he advocated "popular resistance for now" and "a state in the 1967 borders at the present stage." Rather, signs point to the rise of the hard-liners.

One indication is the prominence of Isma'il Haniya, a popular leader in Gaza and a leading candidate for the role of Political Bureau head, who also enjoys the support of Iran (especially since the waning in Iran's relations with Mash'al) and serves as a conduit for Iranian funds to Gaza. Another is the outcome of the internal elections, which, as mentioned, have strengthened the presence of Al-Qassam representatives and of prisoners released in the Shalit deal – who also belong to the hard-liner faction in the movement. A third indication is the statements made recently by Hamas official Kana'an 'Obeid, who repeatedly called for the elimination of Israel.[18]

As for the situation on the ground, the last few weeks have seen tighter coordination between Hamas and Islamic Jihad in operations against Israel. Hamas took an active part in the latest round of fighting in October 2012, which involved the firing of dozens of rockets and mortars at Israeli settlements; moreover, it announced its participation explicitly and even boasted about its successful cooperation with Islamic Jihad.

As for long-term developments, since we are in an interim stage marked by instability in the Arab world, and since the process of electing the Hamas institutions and Political Bureau head is still ongoing, it is difficult to predict the future course of the movement. The Gazan leaders are still affiliated with the resistance camp led by Iran (and receive direct funding from this country), yet they also maintain ties with the anti-Iranian camp in the Arab world, as evident, for example, from the recent historic visit to Gaza by the Qatari Emir, who also granted generous aid to Hamas. The movement is also closely linked to Egypt (which, under Mursi's rule, allows the Hamas leaders freedom of movement). Beyond its ideological affinity with the MB, Hamas must also consider the positions and interests of the Egyptian administration, so its future political course may be largely determined by the policies and decisions of this administration.

Eventually, when one of Hamas' leaders (such as Haniya) is selected to lead the movement and perhaps even the Palestinian entity as a whole (if elections take place), he may well discover that he can no longer pursue a hard-line stance, and must follow Mash'al's example of talking a pragmatic stance without discarding Hamas's extremist ideology (just as Mursi's Egypt has been doing, for example by honoring the peace agreements with Israel in order to gain international legitimacy). It should be remembered that Haniya has proved himself capable of adapting to changing circumstances, for instance in his first years as Hamas prime minister, when he was perceived as a relatively pragmatic leader and was cautious in his statements.

Finally, we must not rule out the return of Khaled Mash'al, who has promised to continue serving the movement and has described his departure as temporary. In fact, he may return in a more senior capacity – for instance as PA president, as head of the Palestinian National Council or as head of the Palestinian department in the global MB – and resume influencing Hamas's course.[19]

* C. Jacob is a research fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Ayyam (PA), January 22, 2012.

[2], April 14, 2012.

[3] Al-Ayyam (PA), January 22, 2012.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 3, 2012.

[5], October 3, 2012.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 5, 2012; Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), February 12, 2012.

[7] Al-Hayat (London), September 26, 2012.

[9] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), October 4, 2012.

[10] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), September 26, 2012; Al-Ayyam (PA), September 24, 2012.

[11], September 29, 2012.

[12] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), September 24, 2012.

[13] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), April 27, 2012.

[14], April 24, 2012.

[15] Al-Siyassa (Kuwait), May 11, 2012.

[16] Al-Hayat (London), October 15, 2012.

[17] Al-Risala (Gaza), July 11, 2012.

[18] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5000, Advisor To Hamas Government In Gaza: Israel Must Disappear,

October 11, 2012.

[19] Al-Quds (Jerusalem), October 14, 2012.

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