Postings by Hamas supporters after Yahya al-Sinwar was elected to head the political bureau in the Gaza Strip. Left: Yahya al-Sinwar represented as a threat to Israel (Posting to Hamas' Paldaf forum, February 14, 2017). Right: "Gazan hot pepper" (the stem is the green Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades headband) (Twitter account of Palinfo, February 14, 2017).
1. Elections were recently held for Hamas' political bureau in the Gaza Strip, the highest leadership institution in Gaza. Several thousand voters participated, electing 15 members. Yahya al-Sinwarwas chosen to head the new political bureau. He was a senior operative in the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, Hamas' military wing, and a member of the previous political bureau. He fully represents the positions of the military wing. Khalil al-Haya,also a member of the previous political bureau, was elected as deputy head. Both hold extremist viewsand their election clearly signals the strengthening of Hamas' extremist wing, which is based on former military wing operatives.
2. At least five of the new political bureau members are affiliated with Hamas' military wing (Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades). Two were terrorist operatives released in the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal. Some of them spent years in Israeli jails. Among those voted in were residents of the refugee camps, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, former ministers and a mayor. However, operatives affiliated with the military wing hold the main power in the new political bureau. Many of the political bureau members were born in the 1960s, and represent Hamas' middle generation, which took over the reins of leadership when most of the movement's founding members left office or died (the last founding member is Mahmoud al-Zahar, who also holds extremist views).
3. The elections in the Gaza Strip were one stage in comprehensive elections for the movement's institutions; elections will also be held in Judea and Samaria and "abroad." The process will end when the General Shura Council, Hamas' highest leadership institution, appoints the head of the movement's political bureau. It is generally accepted that Ismail Haniyeh, former head of Hamas' political bureau in the Gaza Strip, will replace Khaled Mashaal.
4. The results of the election indicate the strengthening of Hamas military wing in the Gaza Strip, and its increasing influence on the movement's decisions. The balance of power between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hamas "abroad" has now tipped in favor of the military and radical wings of the movement based in the Gaza Strip. In ITIC assessment, the military wingwill have great influence, possibly decisive influence, on the decisions made by Hamas overall institutions and on the movement's policies. That will be the case despite Hamas' formal hierarchy, according to which the military wing is subordinate to the political leadership. That is, in ITIC assessment, the most significant result of the recent elections.
5. The increased weight of the military wing is liable to influence decisions made by Hamas about various important issues, both internal and external. That includes how the movement will act with regard to Israel(whether to continue the policy of restraint, and under what circumstances to deviate from it); relations with Egypt(whether to continue the fragile process of improving relations or to continue military cooperation with ISIS's Sinai Province, risking Egyptian hostility); relations with Iran(whether to continue improving relations with Iran in order to equip the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades, even at the expense of relations with Sunni Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States); allotting resources to the Izz al-Din Qassam Brigades' military buildup versus Hamas' civilian commitments and responsibilities(whether to continue giving priority to the military buildup at the expense of the critical needs of the civilian population and risking public anger); the reconciliation with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA)(whether to attempt a genuine reconciliation initiative or to strengthen a separate Hamas entity in the Gaza Strip).
6. Analysisin Israel and in the internal Palestinian arena, which noted (justly, in ITIC assessment), the threats of the rising importance of the military wing, greatly irritated Hamas. That was because of concern lest the rise of the military wing (as exemplified by the election of Yahya al-Sinwar) turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and lead to an escalation in the confrontation with Israel at an inconvenient time for Hamas. As a result, senior Hamas figures and Hamas-affiliated commentators have emphasized that continuity is expected in Hamas' current policies, including those relating to Israel. They also noted Hamas' so-called "democratic nature," stressing that the movement's decisions are made by its institutions and not by individuals.
7. In the Gaza Strip the potential for deterioration is high, especially because of Hamas' stated policy that terrorism ("resistance") is the preferable way to conduct the conflict with Israel. That led Hamas to undertake a military buildup after Operation Protective Edge (as well as after previous IDF operations in the Gaza Strip) and handle terrorist networks in Judea and Samaria. Along the Gaza-Israel border, however, Hamas is careful to maintain unprecedented restraint. The election of Yahya al-Sinwar along with the military wing's increasing influence is likely to increase the potential for escalation in the Gaza Strip. One important reason for that is the tendency of military wing's operatives to regard the challenges Hamas faces through the prism of the wing's interestsThat may reduce the weight of the political considerations on which Hamas' current policy of restraint is based.
8. This report has two appendices:
a. Appendix A– Information about the new political bureau members
b. Appendix B– Hamas responses to media reports about the election results