Hamas completed the second stage of its internal elections among its members in the Gaza Strip and captured members in Israeli prisons in early March 2021. The elections defied expectations that Ismail Haniyeh, general leader of Hamas since 2017, would maintain his leadership position. Likewise, Yahya Sinwar’s election as Hamas leader in Gaza for the 2021-2025 term and the election of Khaled Meshaal as Gaza’s President abroad in early April 2021 has attracted the attention of Palestinian and regional policy circles.
Hamas distinguishes itself from other Palestinian organizations in that it holds internal elections every four years, and that the election results affect both decision-making within the organization and the movement’s participation in the general Palestinian elections. The elections also impact Hamas’ relations with other factions and its regional and international partners.
Tens of thousands of Hamas cadres participated in internal elections to select leadership for the 2021-2025 term. These elections are especially significant as they precede Palestinian general elections: the legislative elections are expected to take place in May and the presidential election is set for July.
Hamas’ internal elections consist of several stages. The first is the selection of the administrative bodies for sub-regions, then the election of the Shura Council, and finally election of the President and members of the movement’s political bureau. These elections take place without media campaigns, in complete secrecy.
Members of Hamas’ leadership cannot nominate themselves for leadership positions; members of the elected Shura Council nominate candidates for the political bureau later the same day. The candidate with a majority of Shura Council’s votes becomes the movement’s leader.
While the Shura council elects the political bureau—the highest leadership body within Hamas—the Shura Council is elected according to three districts: the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and abroad. The President of the political bureau may hold the position for only two consecutive terms and internal elections are generally held every four years. The last elections were held in 2017, wherein Haniyeh won the presidency, succeeding Khaled Mashaal.
In an unusual move, during the recent cycle Hamas published photos of their internal electoral process. This move displays their democratic practices to the world and showing increased transparency in its political and organizational practices.
The List of Contenders
Hamas’ internal elections were conducted via a mechanism that included, for the first time, a list of those who had been members for 15 years and were eligible for election. This new practice contrasts with previous years when eligibility for election was limited to sergeants—the highest organizational rank within Hamas.
From the outset, the list of candidates for Hamas leadership was long. Haniyeh appeared to be the favored candidate to continue as head of the political bureau and general leader of the movement. Results from the Hamas electorate abroad, however, resulted in a victory for Mashaal (with Maher Saleh as runner-up) and for Musa Abu Marzouq as Mashaal’s deputy.
Yahya Sinwar was elected as leader of Hamas in Gaza despite strong competition from other local movement leaders, particularly Nizar Awad Allah. Meanwhile, Saleh al-Arouri is projected to remain the leader for the West Bank, due to the lack of competitors as a result of the Israeli occupation. According to former Hamas minister Wasfi Qabha, voter turnout among Hamas members in the West Bank was low.
Hamas’ initiation of internal elections, with Palestinian legislative elections scheduled soon, is designed to signal the movement’s democratic strength to its members and the international community. This exercise of democracy seeks to pump new blood into Hamas leadership and generate internal competition. To the international community, the elections show that Hamas is more than an armed faction; it is a movement with internal democracy.
The 2020 elections witnessed greater competition in comparison to previous cycles, especially given the development of new branches and alliances. However, these elections still lacked openness and took place behind closed doors, maintaining Hamas’ secrecy around electoral processes. Ultimately, the movement kept its key leadership figures in its highest ranks, regardless of their advancing age but younger members have joined the mid-level leadership within administrative bodies, the Shura Council, and the political bureau. Overall, Hamas leadership changed by nearly 30 percent, and notably the average age of the Hamas leadership is younger than that of other Palestinian organizations.
In December 2020, Hamas prisoners, roughly 2,000 across 22 Israeli prisons, announced the results of their internal elections. Salama al-Qatawi was elected president of the highest leadership body for members of the Shura Council and Abdel Nasser Issa was elected as deputy. The names of elected prisoners were broadcast in this seventh electoral cycle, run both in and outside of prisons. The winners were all prominent members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the Hamas organization, who are serving dozens of life sentences, demonstrating the continued importance of captured Hamas members to leadership.
Hamas’ new leaders face challenges related to the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring, as well as strategic losses in the region, particularly in Syria, and pressures from some Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As Hamas seeks to restore relationships across the region, it will also face the aftermath of the military confrontations with Israel between 2008 to 2014 and the Marches of Return in 2018.
Additionally, Hamas’ internal elections are occurring following Trump’s departure from office, which could result in new stability for the movement and offer the new leadership an opportunity to restore alliances. However, Hamas may suffer if the Biden administration reaches an agreement with Iran, should an agreement require Iran to reduce its political support to Hamas, or if Turkey restores its relations with Israel.
Hamas is beginning to understand the local, regional, and international interest in its internal elections as a confirmation of the movement’s place within the Palestinian cause. It refuses to incorporate anything that may influence the procedures of its elections and results, however, describing them as an internal affair governed by laws agreed upon by those within the movement.
Calls for Reform
Members within Hamas have called for minimizing differences among its internal bodies. These members suggest that the new leadership should share supervision of the organization’s three wings: political, social services, and military. However, the upper leadership prefers to divide up supervision of these organizational units, due to the heavy burden placed on the elected leadership resulting from geographic decentralization.
The recent internal Hamas elections witnessed some of its leaders demanding improvement of the general system and the movement’s electoral regulations to preserve its unity, strengthen its organizational cohesion, achieve its movement objectives, and repair the negative effects of the recent 2021 elections and its consequences—without marginalizing a single sector. These members also called for the formation of a general meeting for the movement where its members can undertake free, competitive elections that guarantee all members the right to run and vote, as well as form elective lists, practice election campaigns, compete between qualified candidates to occupy the leadership positions, and have elections conducted according to the proportional representation.
Hamas values and maintains its organizational distinction from other Palestinian organizations in holding elections every four years. However, these elections seem traditional, outdated, and ineffective. The finite options for change result in part from leaders who rely on routine organizational guidelines that have continued since the movement’s establishment in 1987, and to the nature of the organization, and an electoral method that tends to be secret and behind closed doors. Additionally, the movement has prohibited its members from communicating with those running for leadership positions internally, and restricted selection to very limited geographical areas.
Hamas is expected to complete its internal election cycle in May 2021, amid calls for increased internal reform. Requests for the movement to hold a general conference, repeal its complete secrecy, and grant candidates the space to campaign look to lead the movement toward the empowerment of both young people and women to assume leadership positions.
Adnan Abu Amer is a professor of political science at al-Ummah University and a writer and researcher at the Arab Studies Center. He holds a doctorate in political history from Damascus University. Follow him on Twitter @AdnanAbuAmer2.
*This article is the second of four articles in a series on the Palestinian elections. It was written before the announcement of the legislative elections’ postponement.