Hamas announced on Saturday that it had chosen Ismail Haniyeh, a longtime leader of the militant Islamist group in Gaza, as its new political chief, after signalling a more pragmatic line in a new policy document.
Mr Haniyeh served as a deputy to Khaled Mashal, the outgoing political leader of Hamas, and is expected to continue his policies. As head of the group’s political bureau, Mr Mashal led Hamas from exile for more than two decades and currently lives in Doha, Qatar.
The choice of Mr Haniyeh reflected a shift of power in Hamas to the Gaza Strip. Mr Haniyeh, 54, is from the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, where he has strong grassroots support.
He was the private secretary of Sheik Ahmad Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, and was chosen in 2006 to head the group’s first government after it won legislative elections.
He later headed a national unity government until he was ousted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Mr Abbas’s Fatah party in 2007.
A spokesman for Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, expressed hope that Mr Haniyeh’s election as the top leader of Hamas would bring “an opening to the region”. One of the new leader’s expected tasks will be to patch up strained relations with Egypt and Iran that have left Hamas
The change in leadership came days after Hamas published a document of principles that accepted a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, though it rejected any recognition of Israel. While dropping explicit language calling for Israel’s destruction, the document affirmed the ultimate goal enshrined in the group’s charter of “liberating” all of the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, including what is now Israel.
Avoiding anti-Semitic language in the charter and distancing Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood, the document was drafted in an effort to improve ties with Egypt and secure greater international recognition.
However such recognition has not been forthcoming as the newly framed principles fail to meet international conditions, including renouncing violence, recognising Israel’s right to exist and accepting signed agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation
Hamas militants in Gaza have fought three cross-border wars with Israel since 2008, and for years the group carried out rocket attacks and suicide bombings in Israel, claiming hundreds of victims.