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Mideast: Hamas Leader 'Of The People' Is New Palestinian Premier

  • Jeffrey Donovan --> Ismail Haniyah served as dean of the Islamic University (file photo) (epa) Ismail Haniyah lives with his wife and 11 children in a Gaza refugee camp, on a narrow street overflowing with raw sewage. Many Palestinians consider him to be a voice for national unity. Today, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is expected to formally ask him to form a cabinet.

PRAGUE, 21 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- After talks on 20 February between Hamas leaders and President Abbas, the name of the future Palestinian prime minister was announced for the first time.

"We met Mr. President, Mahmud Abbas, and he asked us officially, 'Who is the candidate to be the new prime minister?' And we [replied] that our brother, Ismail Haniyah, will be the candidate," Mahmud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader, said at a news conference in Gaza City.

Who Is Haniyah?

Haniyah was born in 1963 in the beachfront Shati refugee camp, on the edge of Gaza City. There, he studied in United Nations refugee schools, and graduated in Arabic from the Islamic University in 1987.

A student activist, he later became a close associate of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, who was killed by an Israel missile strike in 2004.

In 1992, Haniyah was expelled by Israel to southern Lebanon, along with more than 400 Hamas activists. He returned a year later and became dean of the Islamic University.

"As a person, he is very popular," says Amir Makhul, a political analyst and director of Palestinian-Israeli nongovernmental organizations in the city of Haifa. "He represents the people who are refugees, and he is very active in the poor neighborhoods or the refugee camps. He's a person of the people --- really, he's from the people, from down to up."

Indeed, Haniyah continues to live in his native Gaza refugee camp, in a modest house with his wife and 11 kids.

"He is from, all his family is from the Gaza camp; it is the world's most densely populated area -- these are the figures we have," Makhul says. "The people really live in very difficult conditions, and big families; of course, this is the traditional Palestinian family. And the camps still have the position as a symbol for the Palestinian people; there is a very symbolic issue of the camps as evidence for the refugees' case."

Leading A Change In Tack

After killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide attacks in recent years, Hamas has recently changed tack. It has observed a yearlong truce, and says it would consider a long-term armistice if Israel follows last year's Gaza pullout with a withdrawal from the West Bank.

Palestinian supporters of the Islamic Jihad movement at a demonstration outside the UN compound in Gaza City last month (epa)

Yossi Mekelberg, an Israeli political analyst, says Haniyah is part of a Hamas faction that believes the group's political goals can also be achieved through nonviolent means.

"There is an element of pragmatism; they've moved from the 1988 charter into something a bit more pragmatic, talking not about the destruction -- or as they say in the charter the 'obliterating' -- of Israel, into some long cease-fire, as they call it, 'hudna,'" Mekelberg says. "So there is a change, it's far from being enough, but at least it shows that there are factions within Hamas that understand that in power, you need to take a little bit different approach."

That approach, for now, is taking Haniyah through talks with all Palestinian parties in a bid to form a broad coalition cabinet. So far, the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has agreed in principle to join, while Islamic Jihad turned down an invitation to take part.

Haniyah has up to five weeks to pull off a task that analyst Makhul says will take all of the politician's negotiating skills.

"[Haniyah] has a very positive approach toward dialogue and for national unity within the Palestinian people, and he's willing to have Fatah, and the other left-wing [parties] in the Palestinian parliament within his coalition," he says. "Because he is thinking -- and this what Hamas is in fact thinking -- that they should have national unity in order to confront part of the challenges that the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza are confronting now."

And the challenges continue to mount.

Israel on 19 February halted the transfer of tax revenues that it collects for the Palestinian Authority. The $50 million per month is vital to paying 140,000 Palestinian Authority employees.

Meanwhile, Israel insists it will not deal with a Palestinian cabinet that includes Hamas, which it calls a terrorist organization.

After winning the elections in January, Hamas and Haniyah clearly have another big challenge to tackle -- governing.

(RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten contributed to this report)