Key Player: Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh
Hamas chose Haniyeh to lead the movement’s national list of candidates in the parliamentary elections because of his moderate ideology and his appeal to mainstream Palestinian voters.
Regarded as a good communicator and a pragmatic politician, Haniyeh is a strong proponent of Palestinian national unity and reportedly worked to avoid a dispute between Fatah and Hamas in 2005, according to a BBC report.
And unlike other Hamas leaders, Haniyeh has not called for the “destruction of Israel,” suggesting that the movement may be shifting toward a more moderate stance. Haniyeh said in an interview with the Washington Post that Hamas is “not interested in a vicious cycle of violence” and that “if Israel declares that it will give the Palestinian people a state and give them back all their rights, then we are ready to recognize them.”
Haniyeh became the Palestinian prime minister after Hamas won 76 seats in the 132-member parliament. Haniyeh told journalists in Gaza that Hamas won “on the principle of defending the legitimacy of resistance against Israeli occupation.”
He tends to be more pragmatic than other Hamas leaders. When asked by the Washington Post about past agreements between the Palestinian government and Israel, Haniyeh said that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority will “review all arrangements” and will honor “ones that will guarantee the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital with 1967 borders — as well as agreements that would release prisoners.”
Haniyeh told the Palestinian Legislative Council that ending corruption, carrying out internal reform and improving relations with the international community are among his government’s top priorities.
Born in 1962 in the Shati refugee camp near Gaza city, Haniyeh’s family lived on monthly stipends provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees.
He attended the Islamic University of Gaza beginning in 1983 where he studied Arabic literature and joined the Islamic Student Bloc, a precursor to Hamas. After his graduation, he joined the intifada against Israel’s occupation that began in December 1987, leading to his brief arrest in 1987 and for six months in 1988.
In late 1987, a group of Muslim Palestinians led by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin founded Hamas, an acronym for Harakatu al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) as an outgrowth of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Haniyeh was arrested again in 1989 and sentenced to three years in jail for his role in Hamas. After his release, he was deported to Marj al-Zahour in South Lebanon with senior Hamas leaders Abdel-Aziz Rantissi and Mahmoud Zahhar and 400 other activists from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The year in exile garnered Hamas unprecedented media exposure and the group became known throughout the world.
Upon his return to Gaza in December 1993, Haniyeh was appointed dean of the Islamic University. In 1997, Israel released Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison and Haniyeh became his assistant, often serving as Hamas’ representative to the Palestinian Authority.
Haniyeh and Yassin were injured in an Israeli air strike in Sept. 2003 and six months later Yassin was killed by Israeli helicopters.
After Yassin’s successor Abdel-Aziz Rantissi was killed in April 2004, Hamas became more secretive about its leaders’ names. Palestinian sources say Haniyeh became part of Hamas’ “collective leadership” along with Mahmoud Zahhar, believed to be the most senior leader and more hard-line than Haniyeh, and Said al-Siyam.
Haniyeh pressed for Hamas to participate in Palestinian elections in 2006 and headed the party in both municipal and parliamentary elections. He has been described as calm and soft-spoken.
“He respects his interlocutors and doesn’t like static attitudes. He is a very approachable person,” said Atif Udwan, a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza, in AlJazeera.net.