Israel Pulse

How a new generation of members could shake up Hamas

Article Summary
A new generation of Hamas members is seeking election to the Shura Council to reshape and revitalize the movement.

Closed elections are being held right now for Hamas’ Shura Council. These elections will shape not only the future composition of the Shura Council, but also the movement’s overall leadership. Senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh is expected to be elected head of the movement’s political bureau — and in effect, leader of Hamas. Haniyeh left Gaza Sept. 5 with most of his family members to focus on Hamas’ fateful election campaign. This will be a new era following that of outgoing political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal.

In the past, the Shura Council was composed of dozens of religious leaders and imams, but over the years, other forces have entered the council. They include well-educated individuals and professionals from Gaza and the West Bank as well as top Palestinian lecturers from well-known universities around the world. These members keep their Shura Council affiliation a secret. The list of council members is confidential out of concern for the threat of Israeli assassination of Hamas officials. However, over time, their names have been occasionally leaked as the threat has declined.

From intelligence gathered over the years (for example, interrogations of Hamas prisoners in Israeli prisons), it is possible to assemble an almost complete profile of the Shura Council. It shows how the movement has changed over time, consistent with processes taking place within it. For example, when Hamas became a political movement, its leadership’s center of gravity shifted. The composition of the Shura Council shifted from religious figures to members of the political wing.

In the elections currently underway, the makeup of the Shura Council is expected to radically change once again. A high-level source in the Gaza Strip told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that this time, the movement’s military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is more adamant than ever to be part of the council and participate in mapping out its future path. The desire of high-level military members to compete for a foothold in the council was inevitable. Ever since Hamas took control of Gaza and following the subsequent frequent armed conflicts with Israel, power has been concentrated in the military wing, where crucial decisions are made — sometimes over the heads of the political echelon and against resolutions of the Shura Council.

One of the most interesting phenomena in these elections is that Gaza’s “youth revolution” seems to have seeped into fundamentalist Hamas. Youths who completed their studies in Gaza’s Islamic University and were active in student associations view themselves as the next generation of Hamas’ leadership. They expect to inject new spirit into a movement that they feel has been stuck in a dead end under the recent years of Meshaal’s leadership.

Some members of Hamas’ younger generation belong to the movement’s military wing, while others play important roles in the movement's welfare organization. Many of them are tired of a stagnant leadership that offers no solutions for the coming years. As far as they are concerned, the election of Haniyeh to lead the movement represents a refreshing change, but it is not enough. They feel the revolution will not be complete until they, the youths, become part of Hamas’ new policy-making elite in the post-Meshaal era. The central question that troubles them is how long Hamas can rule the Gaza Strip under an ongoing closure and without hope for an end. They are also upset that the movement’s old guard is unwilling to grant them entrance to the decision-making hubs of power.

A high-level Fatah official in the Gaza Strip who views himself as sharing good relations with Hamas activists told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that in the past, the leadership turnover within Hamas had been very high “in the era when Israel killed [Hamas leaders], mainly during the second intifada years." He said, "In that period, position-holders were frequently exchanged, allowing for new players to enter the ring. This was not only the result of the assassinations but also due to the emergency atmosphere that prevailed in Hamas at the time and required many workers in a broad variety of spheres. But those days have passed.”

According to the same source, Hamas is presently stagnating. There are almost no recent changes in key positions in the movement. This situation created a bottleneck among members of the younger generation, movement activists aged 30-40 who want to advance and exert political influence over the way their movement will look in the coming years.

During preparations for the Shura Council elections, certain political deals within Hamas emerged. The deals between various Hamas factions were designed to allow new names to squeeze into Hamas’ closed, fossilized list of Shura Council members. The same source reported that Mushir al-Masri — one of the movement’s “intermediate generation” leaders and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council — has become the address for Hamas’ younger generation, which views him as the key to their success.

Over the years, Masri's outreach activities made him a well-liked man. According to the senior Palestinian source, Masri “encourages youths who studied in the Islamic University to compete for a place on the council, even if their chances of being elected are small in the competition against the military-wing activists.” Masri’s motto is that in order to achieve success, factions in the movement must organize themselves into lobbying groups.

At this stage, it’s impossible to know whether these efforts will bear fruit. No one outside the council knows for sure whether the elections are held under democratic, impartial and fair conditions, and no one knows what the members of the military wing are doing to consolidate their power and retain their positions. But one thing is clear: In the Shura Council elections, Hamas is likely to undergo a great shake-up.

Al-Monitor asked a Hamas activist in Gaza, “What would members of the younger generation view as an achievement?” He answered on condition of anonymity, “When the leaders of the past know that they cannot continue to decide things on their own, that other people in the movement also have opinions and a say in the matter.”

The election results will be revealed at the end of December. Then we will also know whether Haniyeh prefers to remain in Qatar or return to Gaza and live among his people and the youths who view his election as a harbinger of change.

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Found in: shura council, palestinian politics, palestinian leadership, palestinian elections, khaled meshaal, ismail haniyeh, hamas, gaza strip

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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