Sinwar’s re-election as Hamas leader in Gaza raises concerns, and not just in Israel

Adnan Abu Amer

Middle East Monitor  /  March 21, 2021

Hamas surprised us all by announcing the results of its leadership election in the Gaza Strip, which was won by the current leader in the territory, Yahya Sinwar. He beat his strong rival Nizar Awadallah, who collected 147 votes against Sinwar’s 167 of the 320 members of the Gaza Shura (Consultative) Council. It took four rounds of voting before there was a clear winner.

Questions are being asked about why Awadallah lost to Sinwar, and why the latter only won after a fourth vote, which means that half of the movement’s leadership did not vote for him. How will he lead Hamas in the territory until 2025, and what will relations be like with Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community?

Sinwar is the second leader of Hamas with a military and security background, which has sparked speculation about its upcoming policies both internally and externally and how his re-election might be reflected in terms of the movement’s regional relations. Does his victory suggest that the military wing is dominating the movement now?

One of the most prominent military officials of Hamas since it was founded in 1987, Sinwar was arrested by Israel in 1988 for establishing the movement’s security structure and was given four life sentences. The 58 year old was released in the 2011 prisoner swap deal which saw the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

He has held a number of leadership positions in Hamas and has been a member of its political bureau since 2012, with responsibility for coordination between the political and military wings. Since 2015, he has been in charge of the file covering the Israeli soldiers who were captured by Hamas during Israel’s 2014 military offensive against Gaza.

During his first term as leader of Hamas in Gaza from 2017, Sinwar gained political experience, and while it is true that he has great power and influence within the movement, particularly the military wing, it is not correct to say that he determines overall strategy. That is not how Hamas works, no matter how powerful and charismatic the leader might be.

Sinwar’s victory was in accordance with the rules of Hamas governing its internal electoral process. It may be an indication that the radical wing is beginning to dominate in Gaza, and that the more pragmatic wing represented by Awadallah is on the wane. Nevertheless, the structure of the movement means that crucial decisions are submitted to the major Shura Councils with members from within Palestine and in the diaspora, so Sinwar’s impact on policies is not inevitable.

Even so, his re-election means that those who believe that a resistance movement should be led by someone with a military background appear to have prevailed, in Gaza at least. Others think that Hamas should have injected some new blood into the leadership, and Awadallah was seen as a strong candidate even though he has not had much media and public exposure.

The re-election of Sinwar as Hamas leader in Gaza, even if it did take four votes, means that the centre of the movement’s decision-making and its leadership institutions may remain in the territory. It retains a significant military and organisational presence and is still the home of Hamas’s as yet unchallenged rule.

Senior officials within Hamas have taken the opportunity of the election to point out the movement’s democratic credentials; no mention has been made of any prospective policy changes. There has certainly been no talk about a coup, or claims that the military wing controls the political bureau; the emphasis has been on stressing the elected leadership rather than a top-down approach to decision making.

Hamas believes that Sinwar’s victory, despite the various reactions to his re-election, embodies its political and military formations, which both follow command decisions and refrain from monopolising the decision-making process or imposing personal opinions. The ballot result means that he is likely to adopt a more comprehensive vision, by expanding his consultation circles with the movement’s politicians, although he favours military commanders operating on the ground. As head of Hamas in Gaza, the effective and influential Sinwar has room to manoeuvre and expand his reach within and beyond the movement.

His leadership style is different; it is not the traditional Hamas way of taking decisions quietly. With a new term in office before him he may now feel emboldened to take big steps without taking wider considerations into account. This may raise a few concerns within the movement.

It is too early to predict what Sinwar’s second term will bring, away from any prejudice against him and what is being said about his alleged extremist tendencies and military approach. He is more than just another commander who performs his role among other leaders in the movement, and may well feel the need to ease concerns about his re-election within the Palestinian territories and neighbouring countries. Such concerns have been raised by Israel, so Sinwar could take careful steps to manage the movement’s relations with the occupation state. The dynamics involved in that relationship, of course, are all relative to what the occupation may impose on the Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip.

Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza