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Do Hamas' leaders abroad have a mandate to negotiate?

By Khaled Abu Toameh
web posted April 15, 2024

The Egyptians and Qataris are negotiating with Hamas leaders in Qatar and Lebanon in a bid to reach an agreement that would result in a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the release of the Israeli hostages held by the Iran-backed terror group. The Hamas team is led by Khalil al-Hayya and Ismail Haniyeh, both based in Qatar.

Al-Hayya is a member of Hamas' Politburo and deputy head of Hamas's Regional Politburo in the Gaza Strip, which Yahya Sinwar heads. Al-Hayya left the Gaza Strip in 2021, shortly after he was appointed as Hamas's liaison to Arab and Islamic countries.

In February 2017, Sinwar was secretly elected Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, taking over from Ismail Haniyeh, who is the current chairman of Hamas Politburo. Haniyeh, too, left the Gaza Strip five years ago and has since been living in Qatar.

In recent years, several other senior Hamas officials have also left the Gaza Strip. Most have settled in Qatar, Lebanon, and Turkey.

According to Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas leaders who chose to leave the coastal enclave did so after falling out with Sinwar and his brother, Mohammed, a commander of Hamas's armed wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. "The Sinwar brothers carried out a silent coup against the veteran political leadership of Hamas," the sources said. "Yahya and Mohammed did not tolerate any competition and ruled the Gaza Strip as if it were their private fiefdom."

Sinwar brothers
The Sinwar brothers

Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war in October 2023, the Sinwar brothers, the masterminds of the Hamas invasion of Israel, have gone into hiding to avoid being captured or assassinated by Israeli security forces. The two, who have not been seen in public in the past six months, are believed to be hiding in the southern Gaza Strip, surrounded by a handful of close and trusted aides and bodyguards.

Prior to the war, relations between the Sinwar brothers and the Hamas leadership abroad were said to be tense. The Sinwar brothers, with the help of Hamas military commanders Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa, acted as if they were a separate group from Hamas, often refusing to accept dictates from Haniyeh and other senior Hamas officials in Qatar and Lebanon.

As part of an attempt to tighten their grip on the Gaza Strip, the Sinwar brothers opened direct channels with Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. In return, the Iranians rewarded the Gaza-based Hamas leaders with financial and military aid.

The Hamas leaders abroad, though dismayed by the open challenge to their authority by the Sinwar brothers, chose not to engage in an open confrontation with the Gaza-based leaders. From their offices in Doha and Beirut, Haniyeh and the other Hamas leaders silently watched as the Sinwar brothers pushed them to the sidelines and commandeered the terror group's armed wing.  

Some Palestinians in the Gaza Strip claim that the October 7 assault on Israel caught the Hamas leaders abroad by surprise. "This shows that Sinwar and his brother don't trust the Hamas political leaders in Qatar and Lebanon," said a Palestinian political analyst in the Gaza Strip. "In light of the rupture between the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip and the Hamas leadership abroad, it's safe to assume that there is almost no direct contact between the Sinwar brothers and Ismail Haniyeh and Khalil al-Hayya."

In the aftermath of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, the disconnect between the Sinwar brothers and the Hamas leadership abroad has only deepened. It's not clear how messages are being directly communicated, if at all, between the Hamas leaders abroad, who are negotiating with the Egyptians and Qataris, and the incommunicado Gaza-based Hamas leaders.

According to an Arab diplomatic source, Yahya Sinwar recently sent an urgent message from his hideout to the Egyptians to the effect that any deal brokered by Haniyeh would be turned down by the Gaza-based leadership and Hamas' military wing. As a result, Haniyeh was forced to call off a planned visit to the Egyptian capital of Cairo.

The tensions between Hamas' "tunnel leadership" in the Gaza Strip and the terror group's leaders in Doha and Beirut are the main reason why the negotiations over a ceasefire and the release of the hostages remain stalled. The Sinwar brothers, together with the commanders of Hamas' armed wing, are worried that the group's leaders abroad are prepared to make unacceptable concessions to Israel as a result of immense pressure from Qatar and Egypt.

As far as the Sinwar brothers are concerned, the only thing that matters now is their personal survival and retaining control of the Gaza Strip. Apparently, they are concerned that the Hamas leaders abroad would be happy to see them either killed or forced into exile, probably to Algeria, Yemen, or Lebanon.

Given the mistrust (and disconnect) between the Gaza-based Hamas leadership and the terror group's leaders abroad, one can only wonder whether the Qataris and Egyptians are not wasting their time negotiating with representatives who do not represent the Sinwar brothers and the shambles of what remains of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. ESR

Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning Israeli Arab journalist, lecturer, and documentary filmmaker specializing in Palestinian affairs. A Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, he has also worked as a senior producer for NBC in the Middle East and has reported on events in the West Bank and Gaza for several media outlets.

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