Over the weekend, the Palestinian Hamas political movement, based in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip, elected Ismail Abdulsalam Ahmed Haniya, 54, as the head of the group’s political bureau, replacing Khalid Meshaal.
As the group makes changes to its organisational structure and policies towards Israel, the move to elect Haniya has raised multiple questions over the timing and reasons for the decision.
Haniya, who lives in Gaza, has a reputation of being pragmatic and flexible. His election is seen by some as being in line with the movement’s decision to accept a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, a stance he has long supported.
But who is Ismail Haniya? Here is a quick guide on the man running the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas’ political bureau:
Born in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza to parents who fled from the city of Asqalan after the state of Israel was created in 1948, Haniya studied at the al-Azhar Institute in Gaza and graduated with a degree in Arabic literature from the Islamic University in Gaza.
While at university in 1983, Haniya joined the Islamic Student Bloc, a precursor to Hamas.
The year he graduated, 1987, marked the start of the first Palestinian mass uprising against Israeli occupation, known as the First Intifada, and the subsequent founding of Hamas as an official group.
Israeli authorities imprisoned Haniya for 18 days when he participated in protests against the occupation. A year later, in 1988, he was imprisoned again for six months and spent another three years in prison in 1989 on charges that he belonged to Hamas, as the Intifada unfolded.
Following his release, Israel deported Haniya to southern Lebanon along with other senior Hamas leaders, where he spent a year. After the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), he returned to Gaza.
Haniya climbed the ranks within the movement as a close aide and assistant of Hamas’ co-founder, the late Shaikh Ahmed Yassin, in 1997.
In 2001, as the Second Palestinian Intifada erupted, Haniya consolidated his position as one of Hamas’ political leaders, third in ranking after Yassin and Abdul Aziz al-Rantisi.
Haniya and Yassin escaped death in 2003, in a failed Israeli assassination attempt in the form of airstrikes on an apartment bloc in downtown Gaza where the two men were meeting.
A few months later, Yassin, who was a quadriplegic, was targeted and killed by Israeli helicopters as he left a mosque after the early morning prayer.
Haniya rose to prominence in 2006 when he led Hamas to a legislative election victory over the Fatah movement, which had been in power for over a decade.
Though he served as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority for a short period of time, the refusal of the international community to work with Hamas, and the deadlock and violence between the two parties eventually led to the dismantling of the unity government in 2007, after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip.
Haniya was dismissed as PM by president of the PA Mahmoud Abbas, but he remained the de facto leader of the movement in the Gaza Strip.
In a 2007 opinion piece he wrote for The Guardian, Haniya expressed a willingness to find peace with Israel, in contrast to the movement’s declared stance at the time. “If Israel is serious about peace, it has to recognise these basic rights of our people,” wrote Haniya.
And, in 2010, at a news conference in Gaza, Haniya said he would “accept a Palestinian state on the borders of 1967, with Jerusalem as its capital”. He also said the Hamas government would be willing to work with Western governments “who want to help the Palestinian people regain their rights”.
During the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza, two nephews of Haniya were killed, and parts of his home destroyed as a result of Israeli shelling.
On May 6, 2017, Haniya was elected by the movement as head of the political wing.