GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The newly elected leader of Hamas paid tribute in Gaza on Monday to Palestinian prisoners being held in Israel, his first appearance in the new role and a sign of the group’s internal power shift from the diaspora to the Hamas-ruled territory.
Since the Palestinian group’s founding 30 years ago, its top leaders had moved between Arab capitals such as Beirut, Damascus, and Doha, Qatar. On Saturday, Hamas confirmed it had elected Ismail Haniyeh, a former Gaza prime minister, to replace Qatar-based Khaled Mashaal as head of the group’s political bureau, the top job.
Haniyeh, born in the Shati refugee camp near Gaza City, is well known in the tiny, crowded coastal strip of 2 million people.
He briefly visited a Gaza City “solidarity tent” for hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, arriving in his familiar white SUV and accompanied by bodyguards. Photos of the prisoners were displayed in the tent.
“It’s my honor to shoulder the responsibility of leading the political bureau of this large movement of holy resistance,” he said after greeting local security chiefs.
Hamas’ shift to Gaza comes at a time of growing financial pressure on the territory, ruled by the Islamic militant group since it drove out forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
Abbas, who oversees autonomous enclaves in the West Bank, has reduced salary payments and electricity subsidies to Gaza in recent weeks and said more steps would follow. It’s part of an attempt to force Hamas to cede ground in Gaza after years of failed reconciliation attempts.
Haniyeh, 54, also faces other challenges, such as restrictions on movement. Israel and Egypt imposed a border blockade on Gaza after the Hamas takeover, keeping the territory’s borders sealed most of the time. Hamas leaders have been able to travel abroad from time to time, but only with Egyptian coordination.
Haniyeh, who served as Mashaal’s deputy for the past four years, most recently traveled abroad in September. He first visited Saudi Arabia on a Muslim pilgrimage, then traditional backers Qatar and Turkey, before returning to Gaza in January.
Hamas expert Khaled Hroub said the shift to Gaza could weaken the group’s regional ties, particularly if travel is limited. A Gaza-based leadership might have fewer contacts with regional allies, he said.
“I think Hamas will be more in (Gaza) and less out,” said Hroub, a political scientist at Northwestern University’s Doha campus.
Hamas was founded in December 1987 in Gaza as a branch of the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood. In its founding charter, Hamas calls for setting up an Islamic state in historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.
Haniyeh’s election came days after Hamas published a new political manifesto, rebranding itself as a Palestinian national movement and distancing itself from the Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by Egypt.
The new program omits the old charter’s specific language about seeking Israel’s destruction and raises the possibility of a Palestinian state in lands Israel occupied in 1967, but only as a step toward “liberating” all of historic Palestine.
Over the years, Hamas had a leadership-in-exile that raised funds or courted political support from countries like Iran and Syria, while the Hamas military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, attacked Israeli targets from Gaza and the West Bank.
The power shift from the diaspora to Gaza began in 2012 when Hamas leaders-in-exile had to quit their longtime base in Syria as a result of the civil war that began a year earlier. Since then, Mashaal has mostly lived in lavish hotel suites in oil-rich Qatar, but without the political and military freedom Hamas enjoyed in Damascus.
Meanwhile, the military wing became increasingly influential in Gaza. After chasing out Abbas’ forces in 2007, it fought three cross-border wars with Israel, starting in 2008. Al-Qassam fighters also captured an Israeli soldier in 2006 and swapped him in 2011 for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
One of those freed was Yehiyeh Sinwar, a former hard-line al-Qassam commander. In February, he was elected Hamas leader for Gaza, a post that makes him Haniyeh’s deputy.
It’s not clear which direction Haniyeh will choose for Hamas.
An occasional mosque preacher, Haniyeh still lives in Shati, though now with a heavy guard. He has been portrayed by some as a pragmatist, although during his time as Gaza prime minister from 2006 to 2014, he was involved in Hamas decisions that led to violent confrontations with Israel and large-scale destruction in Gaza.
He takes the reins at a time of growing hardship in Gaza, including a crippling blockade-linked electricity shortage that has led to rolling power cuts of six hours on, 12 hours off. Last week, the Abbas government said it would stop paying for much of the electricity, raising the prospect of even further power cuts.
It appears that Qatar and Turkey are not rushing to Hamas’ aid this time. In the past, the two helped pay for fuel for Gaza’s power plant, but haven’t taken action since fuel ran out last month.
Egypt seems to be tightening movement in and out of Gaza. Through the fall and winter, Egypt had opened its Rafah crossing with Gaza more than once a month and allowed goods into Gaza. In the last two months, it opened Rafah once, but only in the direction of Gaza.
Haniyeh, a former aide to the late Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual head of Hamas, became Palestinian prime minister in 2006, after Hamas defeated Fatah in parliament elections.
Abbas dismissed Haniyeh in 2007, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Hamas ignored the dismissal and a Haniyeh-led Hamas government remained in place in Gaza, while Abbas appointed a rival administration in the West Bank.
The Haniyeh administration resigned in 2014, as part of a deal with Fatah to set up a transitional government for both the West Bank and Gaza that was to pave the way for national elections. The deal collapsed, with both political camps refusing to give up control in their respective territories.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed.
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