Khaled Mashaal, who has served as Hamas Politburo chairman since 1996, made a surprising announcement in late September 2016. “Khaled Mashaal will be a former chief of the Hamas Politburo next year,” he told a seminar in Doha.
Mashaal’s statement opened the doors for senior Hamas leaders to make a run for the top role in Hamas’s internal elections, which reportedly will take place in stages over the coming months. While the formal list of candidates to replace Mashaal is not known, because of secrecy of Hamas’s internal elections, two officials have pulled ahead as the primary contenders for the chairmanship, Ismail Haniyeh and Musa Abu Marzouk.
Both Haniyeh and Abu Marzouk hail from the Gaza Strip, but Haniyeh has spent most of his life living in the coastal enclave, whereas Abu Marzouk has not lived consistently in the Strip since the 1970s.
Haniyeh, residing in Gaza, has developed close ties and gained popularity with local Hamas members and commanders of Izzadin Kassam, the group’s “military” wing, while sometimes visiting and maintaining consistent contact with Hamas’s exiled leadership.
Meanwhile Abu Marzouk, living abroad, has developed a strong relationship with Hamas’s diaspora leaders and earned a reputation as a shrewd diplomat and persuasive fund-raiser.
Both will likely garner many votes for the top post, but the popularity of Haniyeh among Hamas members in Gaza and, to some extent, around the Middle East makes him the favorite to win the chairmanship.
Haniyeh was born in Gaza City’s Shati refugee camp in 1963 to parents who hail from a village near Ashkelon. Haniyeh grew up in relatively modest conditions, attending UNRWA-operated primary schools and the Al-Azhar Institute high school. In the mid-1980s, he studied at the Islamic University in Gaza, where he majored in Arabic literature and became involved in the student politics as a leader representing the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic bloc.
After completing his bachelor’s degree in 1987, Haniyeh stayed in Gaza and participated in the popular Palestinian uprising, known as the first intifada, and began to identify openly as a Hamas member.
He was imprisoned a number of times for his role in the uprising, including for 18 days in December 1987, six months in January 1988, and three years in mid-1989. Following his release in 1992, Israel deported Haniyeh, along with some 400 other Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders, to Lebanon.
After the signing of the Oslo Accords, Haniyeh returned to Gaza and was appointed dean of the Islamic University. In 1997, Haniyeh rose into political prominence when Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin appointed him as his assistant and Hamas’s representative to the Palestinian Authority.
In 2006, Haniyeh led Hamas’s Change and Reform bloc in the PA ’s parliamentary elections, winning 76 of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the PA ’s parliament. Following Hamas’s victory, Haniyeh formed a government, in which he served as prime minister. However, after Hamas militias wrested control of Gaza from the PA in 2007, Abbas dismissed Haniyeh and his fellow ministers from their positions and controversially appointed new ministers in their place.
Despite Abbas’s dismissal, Haniyeh continued to carry out his duties as prime minister in Gaza. In 2014, when Hamas and Fatah reached a reconciliation deal and formed a consensus government of independents, Haniyeh stepped down from his role as prime minister, but has continued to play an influential role in Gazan politics.
In September 2016, Haniyeh left Gaza to participate in the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, and met with Hamas and regional leaders in Qatar for several months. His extended stay in Doha led to rumors that Haniyeh plans to settle in Doha. However, Haniyeh returned to Gaza in January 17 after the Christian holidays.
Compared to many of his colleagues in Hamas, Haniyeh is more pragmatic, a man who has contacts with the PA and international officials. On the issue of Palestinian statehood, Haniyeh said in 2009, ahead of US president Barack Obama’s first visit to the Middle East, that Hamas “would never thwart efforts to create an independent Palestinian state with borders from June 4, 1967.”
On other occasions, however, Haniyeh has offered his support for the formation of one single Palestinian state through armed conflict.
“We say... the armed resistance and the armed struggle are the path and the strategic choice for liberating the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River,” he said in a speech in late 2011.
Abu Marzouk was born in the southern Gaza Strip’s Rafah refugee camp in 1951 to parents who come from Yavne (Yibna). Abu Marzouk studied in primary and secondary schools in the Gaza Strip and became active in politics there in his late teens.
He moved to Cairo in the mid-1970s, where he studied mechanical engineering at Ain Shams University. After graduating in 1977, he relocated to Kuwait, where he worked as a manager of an aluminum factory and an engineer at the Abu Dhabi Petroleum Company.
In 1981, he moved to the United States, where he received a master’s degree from Colorado State University in construction management and a doctorate from Louisiana Tech in industrial engineering.
In the latter half of his studies in the US, Abu Marzouk joined Hamas and became an influential player in the organization.
In 1992, he rose into political prominence when he moved to Jordan and was elected as chairman of the first Hamas Politburo. Abu Marzouk gained a reputation as a seasoned fund-raiser for Hamas, convincing donors around the world to support the Islamist movement.
On a trip to New York in 1995, US authorities arrested Abu Marzouk, imprisoning him for more than two years for his involvement with Hamas, forcing him to concede his role as Politburo chairman to Mashaal.
After Jordan agreed to receive Abu Marzouk, he was extradited to Amman, where he resumed work with Hamas as deputy chairman of the group’s politburo. However, Abu Marzouk and the rest of the Hamas diaspora leadership’s stay in the Jordanian capital was cut short in 1999, when Jordan decided to deport them as a part of a crackdown on Hamas. Abu Marzouk then promptly relocated to Damascus, where the newly elected Syrian President Bashar Assad consented to host him.
Nonetheless, Abu Marzouk relocated again in 2012 to Cairo, after Syrian authorities and Hamas had a falling out over its refusal to back Assad’s squashing of peaceful protests.
In the past several years, Abu Marzouk has worked on a number of portfolios for Hamas, managing many of its diplomatic relationships and meeting with Fatah officials to discuss reconciliation.
Abu Marzouk, like Haniyeh, is seen as more open-minded relative to the more hard-line Hamas members. He said in 2013 that Hamas “agrees to a Palestinian state on 1967 lines,” but still backs violent confrontation against Israel.
However, in other instances, Abu Marzouk has called for the return of all of historic Palestine to its “Palestinian owners,” and said that recognizing Israel is a redline.