GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – The new leader of Hamas made his first public appearance in the new role on Monday, visiting a solidarity tent in his native Gaza for hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh replaced Qatar-based Khaled Mashaal in the Palestinian group’s top position, as head of the political bureau. His win in secret internal elections was announced on Saturday.
Haniyeh’s rise was the latest sign of a power shift in the Islamic militant Hamas from the diaspora to Gaza, which has been under Hamas rule since a 2007 takeover.
This shift comes at a time of growing financial pressure on the territory by Hamas’ main rival, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who in recent weeks has been trying to force the group to cede ground in Gaza.
Haniyeh, a former Hamas prime minister in Gaza, could be hampered in his new leadership role by movement restrictions. Israel and Egypt imposed a border blockade on Gaza after the Hamas takeover a decade ago, 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.
For his first appearance as Hamas leader, Haniyeh chose a symbol of elusive Palestinian unity — a solidarity tent where several political factions are represented, including Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement. The hunger strike of close to 900 Palestinian prisoners, who demand better conditions from Israel, reached its 22nd day on Monday.
“It’s my honor to shoulder the responsibility of leading the political bureau of this large movement of holy resistance,” Haniyeh said after arriving at the tent in downtown Gaza City. He said that the fate of the prisoners remains a top priority for Hamas.
Haniyeh arrived at the tent in a white SUV, accompanied by bodyguards. Local officials and security chiefs lined up to greet him.
Haniyeh, who also served as Mashaal’s deputy for four years, is a familiar figure in Gaza, a tiny sliver of land on the Mediterranean with two million people. He was born in the Shati refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City, where he still lives in a heavily guarded compound.
Haniyeh was named Palestinian prime minister in 2006, after Hamas defeated Fatah movement in parliament elections. Abbas dismissed Haniyeh in June 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 autonomous West Bank enclaves under his control.
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 relinquish control in their respective territories.