Today, millions of indigenous Arab Palestinians are still searching for statehood, autonomy and the end of a 70-year long Israeli occupation.
And over the past two decades, Ismail Haniya has been a prominent figure in that struggle. On Saturday, he was elected leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement of Hamas in a move that may herald a new era of Palestinian self-determination.
But Abu al Abed, as he is also known, has had an eventful ride on his path to Palestinian leadership having been arrested, imprisoned, exiled and targeted by Gaza-bound air strikes. He also lived to witness many of his comrades killed under Israeli occupation.
1. Haniya was born in 1963 in Gaza’s Shati Refugee camp and is father to 13 children. His oldest son goes by the name of Abed, which is the reason for his moniker ‘Abu al Abed’ or ‘father of Abed’.
His parents had fled their home in Ashkelon, close to the Gaza Strip after it was occupied by Israel in 1948.
2. He attended a UN refugee school and graduated from The Islamic University of Gaza in 1987 with a BA in Arabic literature.
3. But he joined a revolt in 1987 known as the Intifada, or uprising, expressing dissent at the illegal Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
It was during that Intifada that Hamas was founded, initially as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.
4. Haniya was jailed several times because of his involvement in the Intifada and spent six months in Israeli prison in 1988.
He was exiled to Lebanon along with 400 Hamas members in 1989, only to return in 1993.
Lebanon had refused to accept the exiles, forcing them to live in tents in the northern part of Israel’s security zone in southern Lebanon.
5. During his exile, Haniya became close to former Hamas leader Abdel Aziz alRantisi, who was assassinated by an Israeli air strike in 2004.
“In general, the issue of forced exile from our homeland has had a profound effect on my thinking,” al Rantisi said.
6. Haniya survived an assassination attempt in 2003 when he served as an assistant to Hamas co-founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.
Yassin guided Haniya’s rise to prominence, but he was assassinated by an Israeli helicopter missile strike on his car in 2004.
“The attacks inside Israel are operations we carry out in response to Israeli crimes against our people,” Yassin said at the time.
7. In 2006, Haniya led Hamas in its initial participation and success in legislative elections. He became Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 2006.
He then made several high level international visits to Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Qatar, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Iran.
In 2009, Haniya had also met former US president Jimmy Carter in Gaza, despite Hamas being classified as a terrorist group by the US.
8. Haniya voiced his support of Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime during a Friday sermon in Egypt’s Al Azhar Mosque. “I salute all people of the Arab Spring, or Islamic winter, and I salute the Syrian people who seek freedom, democracy and reform,” he said.
His statement came after Hamas had accepted funds from Iran in 2012.
9. Haniya fell out with Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Abbas sacked Haniya and the Hamas-led government, but Haniya refused to step down and took over the PA’s offices in the Gaza Strip.
10. Hamas often cites his humble beginnings as a counterpoint to officials within the Palestinian Authority and their rival Fatah party, who have been accused of being corrupt and too compliant with Israel or the US. “The Palestinians face an unethical and unjust siege led by the United States administration,” he said.
11. Before assuming his new position, Haniya was Khaled Meshaal’s deputy in Hamas’s politburo.
Haniya was in charge of Hamas’ Gaza police forces, but he does not directly oversee Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz al din Qassam Brigade.
- He is considered a more pragmatic voice than other leaders in his organisation, but has remained assertive about his refusal to recognise Israel as a state.
- He has stated, however, that he would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.“I tell you with all honesty, we will not recognise Israel, we will not recognise Israel, we will not recognise Israel,” he said.
Haniya’s biggest challenge will be to continue “softening” Hamas’ international image, that has been an obstacle since its 2006 electoral victory. Renouncing violence, recognising Israel and consenting to past peace agreements are conditions set by a majority of world leaders.
Nevertheless, as a veteran freedom fighter and experienced politician, Haniya is as well versed in diplomatic leadership.
- He was able to acquire both political and financial support from Turkey, Qatar and Iran from 2007-2014. “We will continue along the path of resistance in all its aspects, including the armed struggle,” he said.
Political momentum was created for Haniya to fulfil his mission with Hamas’ recently-announced charter which, refrains from anti-Semitic language, distances itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and recognises Palestinian statehood based upon the 1967 borders imposed after the Six-Day War.
Israel’s overwhelming victory in 1967 is still referred to in Arabic as the “Naksa,” or the “Setback,” due to its detrimental effect on Arab territorial claims, armies and unity.
As such, Hamas’ recent amendment was considered by many as a slippery slope to recognising Israel, a matter that Haniya has repeatedly asserted that he will never do.
But left at a disadvantage – as Israel’s occupying force resumes its illegal ground, naval and air blockade – Haniya will be tasked with tough choices in the near future.
Before he gets started, however, he will have to open a strong channel of communication with Cairo, which has temporarily re-opened the Rafah crossing. If not, it will be impossible for Haniya to leave the Gaza Strip and attend to political affairs in Qatar where his predecessor was based.
This week, Haniya delivered his first speech as leader of Hamas, calling for solidarity with hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners.