In October Hamas is slated to conduct its internal elections for the new political bureau and other leadership institutions. The competition to head the political bureau, which is the highest political body in Hamas, is reportedly between Yehya Sinwar, who heads Hamas in Gaza, and Salah al Aruri, who is currently number two in the political bureau today.
The Hamas internal elections are secretive and they are conducted separately in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, the diaspora, and within the Israeli prisons. The voters’ identities are kept secret and the process is carried out over a period of weeks. Sinwar cannot run to lead Hamas in Gaza because he has served two terms and that is the limit. These elections could be crucial for the future of Hamas and, therefore are important for the future of Palestine and for the future of Israel.
Aruri is one of the founding commanders of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military apparatus. He is regarded as “the military commander of the West Bank.” Aruri originates from the West Bank. He studied Sharia law at Hebron University where he was elected head of the university’s Islamic faction. Aruri built up the military wing of Hamas in the West Bank and he was arrested by Israel in 1990. In total, he spent 15 years in prison. In 2010, Aruri was expelled from the West Bank and Gaza and went to Syria. In 2011, Aruri was a member of the Hamas negotiating team that negotiated with Israel the release of Gilad Shalit together with 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. One of the released prisoners was Yehya Sinwar.
Sinwar was also one of the founders of Hamas’ military apparatus. He grew up in Khan Yunis in Gaza and was a classmate of exiled Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan, who lives in Abu Dhabi. Sinwar studied at the Islamic University of Gaza and received a BA in Arabic studies. His family originates from Asqelon (today’s Ashkelon). Sinwar was first arrested in 1982, he spent 22 years in Israeli prisons. According to Israeli sources in 1988, he masterminded the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers and the murder of four Palestinians whom he suspected of cooperating with Israel, for which he was arrested, convicted of murder, and sentenced to four life sentences in 1989. According to Israeli intelligence officers with whom I engaged in the Shalit negotiations, Sinwar never personally killed Israelis, but he did kill Palestinians suspected of working for Israeli security.
Today Aruri is considered to be one of the more extreme leaders in Hamas. Aruri has been behind the renewal of relations between Hamas and Iran, after a break from Iran in 2012. Aruri is also believed to be the driving force encouraging young Palestinians in the West Bank to attack Israelis.
Sinwar is considered to be the most pragmatic leader that Hamas has produced since its founding. Sinwar kept Hamas out of the direct line of fire in the last two Israeli military operations in Gaza. Already in May 2018, Sinwar stated on Al Jazeera that Hamas would pursue “peaceful, popular resistance,” opening the possibility that Hamas may play a role in negotiations with Israel. That has not yet happened, although indirect negotiations have taken place with Hamas through Sinwar in recent years through the Egyptian Intelligence and the Qatari special envoy Mohammed el Emadi.
For the past years, I have been discussing with several Hamas leaders the possibility for entering into a long-term ceasefire with Israel (Hudna). Recently I had a conversation with a Hamas leader about different possible solutions. This is what we communicated:
Hamas leader: You know very well and everyone knows that this crazy struggle and the blood that is shed every day is because of the occupation, and the occupation only. We as Palestinians have no fault other than that we are victims of this occupation. What if we proposed very simply, on the part of Hamas, that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories in return for a long-term armistice?
Me: There won’t be a move with such dramatic steps before we begin to build some kind of trust.
Hamas: All armed operations can be stopped and calm prevail for all, and I think it is a good proposal!
Me: There needs to be some steps first – but I think if Hamas made a proposal like that it would get people to begin to think that perhaps there is some hope. Let’s think together – something has to change – change is made by people. What about something like: a 5-year full ceasefire in Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem in exchange for a full freeze on settlement-building (the majority of Israelis will support this); lifting the siege on Gaza to allow workers and people to travel between the West Bank and Gaza and let goods in (all with the proper and necessary security checks); allowing Palestinian elections in all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem; recognizing the legitimate results of elections; removing Israeli internal checkpoints in the West Bank as the security situation improves; allowing Gazans to pray in Al Aqsa.
Our discussion is ongoing and has been ongoing for years. This person is one of the people in the pragmatic camp of Sinwar in Gaza. He is one of several key figures in that camp. This kind of thinking demonstrates clearly the difference between Sinwar’s pragmatic assessment of the situation and reality as opposed to Aruri who lives outside of Palestine, between Beirut, Istanbul and Doha. The Hamas leadership in Gaza bears the brunt of governance and the need to provide for the more than two million people living in Gaza. The Hamas leadership outside have their lives of luxury in five-star hotels and private jets.
Hamas seeks to be integrated into the Palestinian national institutions. That will happen, according to Hamas, through Palestinian national elections. Their position is that Palestinian unity will also be achieved only through elections. To the best of my understanding and the assessment of the leading Palestinian experts, there is almost no chance that Hamas would win those elections. Hamas will gain a sizable number of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, probably around 30%, the experts say. Some of those experts are the ones who predicted the Hamas victory in 2006 (so did I).
Hamas is part of Palestinian political life and society and there is no chance that it will disappear as a political movement. There are, however, many possibilities for the pragmatic camp in Hamas to gain support. If Palestinian elections were to take place immediately after a military confrontation with Israel, then a Hamas victory would be very likely. If on the other hand, there were prominent voices being heard from within Israel’s national security establishment – past and present – the support for the pragmatic camp would most likely increase. If Sinwar and other Hamas leaders voiced support for a long-term ceasefire with Israel, with conditions that could be accepted by a majority of Israelis, such as the ones I proposed above, I believe that would open the doors to the commodity most missing in Gaza: Hope.