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The leadership of Hamas, founded in late 1987, has always been considered somewhat collective. Despite the existence of central figures—Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was well-known as the group’s founder and original authority—considerable murkiness surrounds the organization’s central command.
Especially since the deaths of Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantisi, who took over for Yassin in 2004, Hamas has not clarified exactly who is in charge. There has been tension between Hamas leaders in the Palestinian territories and in Syria, with the latter in general voicing more extremist positions. After the organization’s recent victory in the Palestinian Authority (PA) elections—Hamas won seventy-four of 132 parliamentary seats—some individuals will likely come to the forefront.
Hamas in the Palestinian Territories
Experts expect Haniyeh, who was first on Hamas’ national candidates list in the January 25 election, to become the leader of the new PA government if a prime minister is chosen from Hamas. Along with Mahmoud al-Zahar, Haniyeh heads Hamas in Gaza.
Haniyeh, who is in his forties, is younger than most other Hamas leaders. He was born in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza, and in 1987—the same year Hamas was founded—he graduated from Gaza City’s Islamic University with a degree in Arabic literature. One of approximately four hundred people expelled by Israel to Lebanon in 1992, Haniyeh returned to Gaza the next year and became the dean of Islamic University, where he also leads the Hamas student movement. He was close with Yassin, taking charge of his office in 1998. Haniyeh often represented Hamas in meetings with the PA. He was jailed for several years, and survived an assassination attempt in 2003.
Though considered more moderate than other members of Hamas, Haniyeh remains "an ideologue," says Alon Ben-Meir, a professor at NYU’s Center for Global Studies. The real difference between him and others is a matter of tactics, Ben-Meir says. Haniyeh, for example, advocated that Hamas participate in the 1996 PA elections that the group boycotted. He is considered likely to take a leadership role, despite coming to Hamas slightly later than some other leaders.
Zahar, believed to be about sixty years old, has been with Hamas since its founding and was close to Yassin. Born in Gaza, he studied medicine in Cairo and became a surgeon and personal doctor to Yassin, as well as a lecturer at Gaza’s Islamic University. Like Haniyeh, Zahar was expelled to Lebanon in 1992, has served time in jail, and survived an assassination attempt.
Despite his seniority in Gaza, Zahar was ninth on Hamas’ list of candidates. Often referred to as a "hardliner," he is not as likely as Haniyeh to become prime minister of the new PA government. On the day of the elections, Zahar stated on Al-Manar TV that "we will not recognize the Israeli enemy’s [right] to a single inch." However, in a January 29 interview with CNN, he said a Palestinian state could, for now, be established based on the borders which existed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
[Sheikh] Hassan Yousef
Yousef, in his fifties, has been the head of Hamas in the West Bank since August 2001 and is currently in Israeli prison. Considered a pragmatic moderate—like Haniyeh—Yousef also came to Hamas later than several of its other leaders. He was also deported to Lebanon in 1992. He and exiled Hamas leader Khalid Meshal have disagreed in the past, with Yousef supporting negotiations rather than violence. If Israel releases him, Yousef "would be a moderating voice," Ben-Meir says.
[Sheikh] Mohammed Abu Tir
Tir, from Jerusalem and second on Hamas’ national candidates list, has a lower profile than the others, but is easily recognizable due to his dyed, bright orange beard. Now in his fifties, Tir has spent twenty-five years in prison and is a former member of Fatah. He was arrested and briefly detained for campaigning in East Jerusalem during the recent legislative elections. He told The Globe and Mail after the elections that "the No. 1 thing we will do is take sharia as a source for legislation." At the same time, he has been careful to add, as he did in an open letter published in Newsweek International, that Hamas "will not impose sharia."
Third on Hamas’ national candidates list, Shanti founded the women’s section of Hamas. She has a doctorate in English and until recently taught at Gaza’s Islamic University. Approximately fifty years old, Shanti is the widow of Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a former leader of Hamas who was killed by Israel in 2004. She has made strong statements in support of suicide bombings.
Deif is believed to be the Gaza commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Izz a-Din al-Qassam Brigades, since the assassination of Saleh Shehada in July 2002. He is high on Israel’s most-wanted list, and has escaped several assassination attempts. He was injured in one such attempt, in September 2002. Even before he took over as Gaza commander, Deif was wanted for planning numerous suicide bombings and other attacks. Deif is from Khan Yunis in Gaza. According to the BBC, Deif’s mentor was Yehya Ayyash, a renowned Hamas bomb maker known as "the engineer" and head of the Qassam brigades until his assassination in late 1995. Deif, who is around forty, was jailed briefly in 2000 and then put under house arrest by the PA, but he was released in April 2001. In August 2005, a tape of Deif was released in which he spoke of resistance as "a legal weapon alongside political activity," threatened to make all of Palestine "hell" for Israel, and encouraged insurgents in Iraq. His exact whereabouts are unknown.
Hamas in Syria
Exiled in Damascus, Meshal is not likely to return to the Palestinian territories anytime soon. He is considered the unofficial leader of Hamas, with control over all of its military and political activities. Yet due to his distance from Gaza and the West Bank, his actual power is questionable. Meshal and Rantisi often clashed as they vied for second-in-command under Yassin.
Meshal has lived in various locations throughout the Middle East. He was born in the West Bank village of Silwad in 1956, and lived there until his family settled in Kuwait after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. He studied physics at Kuwait University, where he led the Islamic Palestinian student movement. In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Meshal moved to Jordan, where he became the country’s Hamas chief. He was poisoned there in 1997 in a failed assassination attempt. After Israeli agents were caught, Israel was forced to provide the antidote to the poison and save Meshal’s life. He later settled in Syria. He has advocated the establishment of a Palestinian army, and even after the elections, reiterated that Hamas would not disarm. In an opinion piece published in The Guardian January 31, Meshal said Hamas would never recognize Israel; in the next sentence, he stated that a "long-term truce" is possible.
Mousa Abu Marzook
Marzook is Hamas’ deputy political leader in Syria. Born in Gaza in 1951, Marzook studied engineering at Ein Shams University in Cairo, graduating in 1977. He received his Ph.D. in industrial engineering in the United States in 1991. He lived in both the United States and Jordan for many years. Marzook was expelled from the United States, and some reports indicate he was expelled from Jordan as well, before settling in Damascus. In 2004, a U.S. court indicted him in absentia for coordinating and financing Hamas activities.
Hamas Leaders, Deceased
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
Yassin, who was killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza on March 22, 2004, founded Hamas in late 1987, and was considered the organization’s spiritual leader. Yassin once headed the Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was arrested in 1984 and released the next year as part of a prisoner exchange. He was imprisoned again in 1989 for the abduction and murder of two Israeli soldiers. After his release in 1997 (orchestrated after the botched assassination attempt of Meshal), Yassin continued to control Hamas. In a statement after Yassin’s death, an IDF spokesman said Yassin "was personally responsible for numerous murderous terror attacks, resulting in the deaths of civilians, both Israeli and foreign."
Abdel Aziz Rantisi
Rantisi, one of Hamas’ founders, took over as the head of Hamas after Yassin’s death. However, he was killed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza less than a month later, on April 17, 2004. Rantisii was born in the town of Khan Yunis in the Gaza strip. A doctor by training, Rantisi lectured at Islamic University in Gaza. He was jailed multiple times and expelled to Lebanon in 1992 for publicly inciting terrorist attacks. Before his death, Rantisi made statements in support of "the Muslim people of Iraq," singling out the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.