Ismail Haniya has been elected as the new leader of Hamas’ political bureau, according to the Palestinian movement’s news agency.
The announcement on Saturday came just days after Hamas unveiled a more moderate stance towards Israel.
WHO IS ISMAIL HANIYA?
Ismail Haniya was born in Gaza in 1962 to parents who fled when Israel was created in 1948.
He was jailed several times by Israel during the first Intifada, or uprising, in the late 1980s – and later deported to Lebanon.
Haniya rose to prominence in 2006, when he led Hamas to a shock election victory over Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority.
He stood down in 2014, after a reconciliation deal between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.
Khaled Meshaal, who preceded Haniya as leader of the movement’s political wing, confirmed the transition of power to Al Jazeera.
“I would like to announce that this new council has elected Abu al-Abed, my brother Ismail Haniya, the president of the political bureau of the movement,” Meshaal, who had been in charge of the political wing for the past 10 years, said in a statement.
“The new leadership will announce any other names in the appropriate time. The movement blesses this election which came in a consultative, democratic way that is homogenous with the lists and that shows the unity of the movement.”
Haniya, 54, is expected to remain in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave run by Hamas since 2007, unlike Meshaal who lives in exile in Qatar’s capital, Doha, and has completed the maximum two terms in office.
Osama Hamdan, a senior spokesman for Hamas, told Al Jazeera that the timing of the change was in accordance with Hamas’ internal rules that limits the terms of leaders of its political bureau.
“The change is not due to a failure in the leadership,” he said.
Hamdan said he was hopeful that Haniya could “repair and reform the situation” and his election can “help the reconciliation agreement [with Hamas’ main Palestinian rival Fatah, which is in control of the West Bank] implemented on the ground”, as Haniya resides in Gaza.
Azzam Tamimi, author of “Hamas: Unwritten Chapters”, described the new leader as a “charismatic” and experienced political figure – Haniya was the group’s deputy leader and served as prime minister of Gaza between 2007 and 2014.
“He ascended in the ranks of the leadership over so many years – he knows his role and duty,” he told Al Jazeera. “Yet, if circumstances can’t help, he will not be able to make miracles.”
Tamimi said Hamas does not function in a vacuum and is subject to regional pressures.
“Therefore, it’s not just a question of who leads, it’s a question of the context and the circumstances in which a new leader leads.”
According to Tamimi, there is no sign that Israel and the West will change their critical stance towards Hamas in light of Haniya’s election.
“But I think Hamas has made a gesture and Ismail Haniya is an open person, he is willing to talk and meet.”
Belal Shobaki, head of the political science department at Hebron University, told Al Jazeera that Haniya’s election shows that Hamas’ centre of influence has moved to Gaza.
“This means that it will be impossible for states in the region to reach an understanding with Hamas without finding a comprehensive solution to the Gaza crisis,” said Shobaki.
“Some regional powers, especially Iran, will need to change their rhetoric toward Hamas. Iran, for example, recently blamed Meshaal for its problems with Hamas,” he added.
On Monday, Hamas unveiled a new policy document easing its stance on Israel after having long called for its destruction.
The document notably accepts the idea of a Palestinian state in territories occupied by Israel in the war of 1967.
It also says its struggle is not against Jews because of their religion but against Israel as an occupier.
However, Hamas officials said the document in no way amounts to recognition of Israel as demanded by the international community.
Shobaki said that Hamas’ policy of rotating authority, along with its new document, could increase its popularity among Palestinians, and that Haniya’s relatively “moderate” personality could make it easier for Fatah to deal with him.
“However, Fatah’s position on Hamas is essentially unrelated to who leads Hamas; rather, it is concerned with Hamas’ position on Fatah’s political programme,” said Shobaki.
“Hamas’ new document confirms that the personal dimension of Hamas’ leadership does not significantly influence the movement’s action, which means that Hamas will not change much in the era of Haniya,” he added.
“Thus, Fatah’s reaction will be based on a different foundation – the form of its relationship with the occupation.”