Two days after his 55th birthday, Hamas chief Ismail Haniya was “blacklisted” by the US State Department last week, described as a “threat to stability in the Middle East.”
The decision raised eyebrows within Palestinian circles, both in the Hamas-governed Gaza Strip and within the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) of President Mahmud Abbas. Even the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which has never been fond of either Haniya or Hamas, felt obliged to come out with a statement saying it “rejects and deplores” his designation as a terrorist by the United States. Why now, many asked, and will such a designation really harm Ismail Haniya?
The former Palestinian Prime Minister has no assets in the US, after all, and with the exception of a religious visit to Saudi Arabia back in 2016, he has rarely set foot outside Gaza. He doesn’t deal with American banks or any US companies. With or without sanctions, nobody in the western world speaks to him, or to any of the leaders of Hamas; nor do they recognize Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip.
Haniya has been trying hard to market himself as a political moderate, annulling a statement in Hamas’ founding charter that calls for the annihilation of the State of Israel. He has even distanced himself from the notorious Muslim Brotherhood, and publicly limited the end-objective of his struggle to the 1967 borders of Palestine, rather than the historic ones of 1948. But none of this has made him any friends in Europe or the US.
He then turned to Egypt, hoping to collaborate on counter-terrorism against Islamic State (ISIS). In the Sinai Peninsula, where it is feeding off the chaos and mayhem in Libya, ISIS has emerged under the name Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, while in Gaza City it calls itself the Omar Hadid Brigade. Most of the Palestinian fighters are former members of Hamas who defected to join ISIS between 2014-2016, accusing the group of becoming too soft on Israel. They know where the keys to Hamas’ coffers, offices and jails are stored, and have used their extensive knowledge of Hamas’ networks to strike deep within Haniya’s powerbase. Haniya used this threat to re-invent himself, saying he too is a partner in the global war on terror and suffering from the same extremism that has plagued Europe and the US. That didn’t shelter him from last Wednesday’s decision either.
Haniya has distanced himself from the notorious Muslim Brotherhood, and publicly limited the end-objective of his struggle to the 1967 borders of Palestine, rather than the historic ones of 1948. None of this has made him any friends in Europe or the US
Rather than worry, however, the former Premier has embraced the US designation, saying it only inspires him to continue do what he has been doing — basically working in the Palestinian underground against Israel, which he has been exceptionally good at ever since joining Hamas in the wake of the first intifada back in 1987.
Haniya was then a young graduate from the Islamic University in Gaza, with a BA in Arabic Literature. He had been raised in poverty at the al-Shati Refugee Camp on the Mediterranean, far from his family home in Askalan (now Ashkelon), 13 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip. He was jailed three times by the Israelis between 1987 and 1989, the last stretch being for three years, and was subsequently deported to southern Lebanon in 1992.
Upon his return he became dean of the Islamic University and bureau chief to Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the founder of Hamas, who was killed by the Israelis in March 2002. Three years after that, he headed the Hamas list in the first post-Yasser Arafat Palestinian legislative elections, and became prime minister – until 2007, when he was dismissed by President Mahmud Abbas.
Haniya continued to lead an illegal government until 2014, then replaced Khaled Meshaal as head of Hamas’ political bureau in May 2017. All the masks of statesmanship he has tried to wear over the past ten years have completely slipped — neither pragmatic nor diplomatic, he is, in reality, militant to the bone. In that sense, the US is actually helping him return to being the man he was before 2006.
The problem for him is that a new generation of Gazans are unimpressed. They were too young to remember Haniya’s prison terms in Israeli jails and would rather than have bread on their tables than hear inflammatory speeches about his resistance and resolution. Ten years of power have seemingly blinded Haniya to the gross failures of Hamas in Gaza.
Of course, Israel is to blame for much of the territory’s predicament, due to non-stop wars and a crippling blockade, but Hamas’ mismanagement and corruption are also vital reasons behind the misfortunes of the people of Gaza. Currently they get a maximum of six hours of electricity per day. They content with major sewage overflows, and 95% of their water is undrinkable. Unemployment stands at over 50%, explaining why hundreds have turned to Hamas’ military wing, and its charismatic commander, Yehya Sinwar, instead of Haniya.
Of Haniya’s age, Sinwar is, similarly, a resident of Gaz (unlike Meshaal, who led the “struggle” from five-star hotels in Doha). He is also a war hero in Palestinian eyes, having spent 22 years in Israeli jails. He and Haniya have lived with the people of Gaza, sharing in their plight and misery – but there is one big difference between the two: Sinwar has been regarded as a serious enemy by Israel.
For years, Haniya worked under the nose of Israeli intelligence; but Israel never once thought of killing him, or even taking jabs at his entourage. For someone of his indoctrination, this is very insulting. Perhaps now, with the US designation, he might qualify for being taken more seriously as a Palestinian leader, both by the Israelis and by the Palestinians themselves.