Yahya Sinwar has been re-elected as leader of Hamas’s political wing in the Gaza Strip for a second four-year term, according to officials with the group running the besieged enclave.
His re-election on Wednesday comes before May 22 Palestinian legislative polls, the first Palestinian vote in 15 years.
Ismail Haniya, chief of Hamas’s political bureau and overall leader, congratulated Sinwar in a statement.
“The movement’s commitment to [internal] elections every four years confirms our deep faith in the principle of rotating power,” he said. “Today, the Hamas movement recorded a milestone in its history and is choosing its leaders in Gaza in a way that reflects authenticity and solid legitimacy.”
Palestinian news agency Maan quoted a Hamas source as saying that Sinwar won 167 out of 320 votes in Gaza’s Shura Council.
Bassem Naim, a senior Hamas figure, confirmed that Sinwar had fended off a challenge from Nizar Awadallah, one of Hamas’s founders.
For his part, Awadallah stressed his support for Sinwar, saying in a statement: “We stand by his side in every position to achieve the goals of our project and our movement.”
Sinwar is a former member of the group’s armed wing who spent more than 20 years in an Israeli prison after being convicted of abducting and killing two Israeli soldiers. He was released in a 2011 prisoner swap.
“Sinwar’s victory shows the man maintains a strong grip on things inside the movement, especially within its vital components such as the military wing,” said Gaza political analyst Adnan Abu Amer.
“The win will enable Sinwar to pursue his policies, whether inside Gaza or with regional countries and the handling of the conflict with Israel.”
Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, a year after beating Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, in an election. Since then, Israel has imposed a land, air and naval blockade, aided by neighbouring Egypt. It has also launched three offensives against the Gaza Strip, and there have been numerous flare-ups.
Hamas has held on to power despite the crippling blockade, which has devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and economy. Some two million people live in the overcrowded enclave, which is now facing a spike in coronavirus infections.
The political wing has closer ties to Qatar and Turkey and tends to be more pragmatic in its dealings with Israel. The armed wing has closer ties with Iran and favours a more confrontational approach towards Israel.
After taking up his position in 2017, Sinwar encouraged mass protests along the fence that separates Gaza from Israel as an alternative to its traditional tool of firing rockets into Israel.
The protests – dubbed the Great March of Return – were aimed at drawing attention to Gaza’s poor living conditions and easing Israel’s blockade. Since the launch of the rallies, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and more than 30,000 wounded by Israeli forces at the fence areas around Gaza.
The protests fizzled out in 2019 under an unofficial truce in which Qatar provided tens of millions of dollars to Hamas for employee salaries, aid projects and cash payments to poor families in exchange for calm.
Sinwar has not been afraid to push for tougher confrontation. Last year, he threatened to go to battle if Israel did not allow respirators and other medical aid to the impoverished territory to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
“If we found that corona[virus] patients in Gaza [are] unable to breathe, we will prevent six million Zionists from breathing and we will get what we want from you by force,” he said at the time.
Sinwar has also helped improve tense relations with neighbouring Egypt. He tightened security along Gaza’s border with restive North Sinai to help the Egyptian military there, where it faced an armed campaign by ISIL’s (ISIS) local allies.
The measures helped to quiet the situation in North Sinai and, as a result, Egypt opened a passageway for goods such as fuel and tobacco to enter Gaza. It has also increasingly opened more regularly the Rafah border crossing, Gaza’s main gate to the outside world.