GAZA CITY: The Palestinian Hamas movement announced Saturday it had chosen its former Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh as the group’s new political chief. Haniyeh succeeds Hamas’ longtime exiled leader Khaled Meshaal, and the move comes shortly after Gaza’s rulers unveiled a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group’s international isolation.
Haniyeh, seen as a pragmatist within the movement, is expected to remain in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave run by Hamas since 2007.
His predecessor lives in exile in Doha and had completed the maximum two terms in office.
“The Hamas Shurah Council Saturday elected Ismail Haniyeh as head of the movement’s political bureau,” the group’s official website announced.
He beat Moussa Abu Marzuk and Mohammad Nazzal in a videoconference vote of the ruling council’s members in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and outside the Palestinian territories.
The 54-year-old will take charge of Hamas as it seeks to ease its international isolation while not marginalizing hard-liners within the movement.
Hamas officials said the revised document in no way amounts to recognition of Israel as demanded by the international community.
In its new policy document, Hamas notably accepts the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, the territories occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967.
The original 1988 charter will not be dropped, but rather supplemented, in a move some analysts see as a way of maintaining the backing of hard-liners.
“The new charter and Haniyeh’s election are two of the biggest events in recent years,” a European official based in Jerusalem told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The question is how is Hamas going to build on this momentum,” he said, speaking in English.
Hamas’ Gaza spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the leadership transition would be smooth.
“Meshaal had already set in motion a new phase,” he told AFP. “Haniyeh will continue on this path.”
Barhoum added the group hoped Haniyeh’s election “would see opening to the region.”
Leila Seurat, a researcher at the Paris-based Centre for International Studies and Research, said the election of a Gaza-based leader signaled a shift for the movement.
It had been directed from Doha and from Damascus since Israel assassinated the movement’s founding father Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in Gaza in 2004.
“His election is a sign that the Gaza leadership has regained the upper hand from those outside,” she said.
In Gaza, where Haniyeh still resides in his home in a refugee camp, some residents saw his election as a sign that could draw attention to the territory’s woes.
“If someone is from outside Gaza, he won’t talk about Gaza’s ordeals and worries properly,” said Ahmad Okasha, a Gaza vendor.
Haniyeh’s first task will be to cope with escalating tensions between Hamas and Fatah, which is based in the West Bank. In recent weeks, Abbas has threatened to exert financial pressure, including cutting wage payments and aid to Gaza, as a way of forcing Hamas to cede ground.
One senior Fatah official, Azzam al-Ahmad, wished Haniyeh “good luck” and called on him to make an effort to end the Palestinian divisions.
But Ahmad also said Hamas must give up its control of Gaza, something Haniyeh has refused to do.
Gaza-based political analyst Hani Habib said he did not foresee a big paradigm shift in internal Palestinian politics under the new leadership.
Haniyeh, he expects, will be “more flexible on different aspects, maybe foremost is the reconciliation, though I don’t see a near end to divisions given the wide gap between the positions of Hamas and Fatah.”
In February, the movement elected a hard-line member of its armed wing as its new Gaza head to replace Haniyeh in that post.
Yehya Sinwar, an influential military figure, was jailed by Israel until October 2011, when he was freed along with more than 1,000 other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured five years earlier.
The Israeli army appeared Saturday to be urging Haniyeh not to seek a new confrontation.
“#Hamas elected a new leader. Time for promise & hope?” Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner posted on his official Twitter site.
“I hope (Haniyeh) makes good decisions for the Palestinians he aspires to lead.”
The Gaza-based Islamic Jihad group Saturday slammed the Hamas policy tweak.
“As partners with our Hamas brothers in the struggle for liberation, we feel concern over the document,” said Islamic Jihad’s deputy leader, Ziad al-Nakhala.
“We are opposed to Hamas’ acceptance of a state within the 1967 borders and we think this is a concession which damages our aims,” he said on Islamic Jihad’s website.
Founded in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, a close ally, Islamic Jihad is the second force in the Gaza Strip and focused entirely on the armed struggle.