Haniyeh, Ismail (1962–)

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Haniyeh, Ismail

Ismail Abd al-Salam Haniyeh (Ismaqil Haniyya, Hanieh) is a high-ranking official in the Palestinian organization Hamas. He became the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in February 2006.


Haniyeh was born in 1962 (some sources say January 1963) in the Shati ("Beach") Refugee camp in Gaza to Palestinian Muslim Arab parents displaced from their village of al-Jura, Palestine, during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Israel refused to allow most of the more than seven hundred thousand Palestinian refugees from the war to return to their homes after hostilities ended, and Haniyeh and his family were forced into permanent exile. They lived on food rations provided by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and he attended UNRWA schools as a youth.

While attending the Islamic University of Gaza starting in 1981, Haniyeh was active in the Islamic Bloc, which was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. He was a member of the Student Council from 1983, and in 1985–1986 served as its elected chair. Haniyeh became a close associate of ahmad yasin, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood and later of Hamas, of which Haniyeh became an early member in 1988. Israeli military authorities, who had governed Gaza since June 1967, briefly arrested him that year, rearrested him for six months in 1988, and then in May 1989 arrested him again and sentenced him to three years' imprisonment. Haniyeh was one of 415 Palestinian activists deported by Israel to southern Lebanon in December 1992.

After Israel allowed his return to Gaza in 1993, Haniyeh was appointed dean of the Islamic University of Gaza. He also served as secretary of the university's board of trustees. In 1998, the year after the wheelchair-bound Yasin's release from an Israeli prison, Haniyeh became his office manager and aide. By that time, most of Gaza was under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Haniyeh became Hamas's main administrator in Gaza, and in September 2003, survived an Israeli air strike on a building where Hamas leaders were meeting. The Israelis later succeeded in killing the top two figures in Hamas with helicopter missile strikes: Yasin in March 2004, and Abd al-Aziz Rantisi in April 2004. As a result, Haniyeh became the movement's key figure in Gaza.

Hamas decided to end its boycott of the PA's Palestinian Legislative Council and compete in the January 2006 elections, a decision reportedly made at the urging of Haniyeh and other Hamas pragmatists. Haniyeh headed the Hamas electoral list, formally called the List for Change and Reform. The list won a stunning victory, defeating its secular rival al-Fatah, which had dominated Palestinian politics for decades. While many around the world interpreted Hamas's victory as a hard-line rejection of the peace process, Hamas's reputation for honesty also garnered it considerable support from a Palestinian electorate tired of Fatah's corrupt leaders and dictatorial style of governing. Hamas's long record of providing public services helped it as well. Hamas submitted Haniyeh's nomination for the post of prime minister to PA President mahmud abbas, and on 21 February 2006, Haniyeh formally assumed the office. He immediately announced that he would decline most of his $4,000 monthly salary because he and his family could live on only $1,500.

Hamas's victory presented a number of challenges to Haniyeh and the PA government in general. The United States, Israel, and other parties cut off ties with the PA because they considered Hamas a terrorist organization unfit to govern and play a role in the peace process. They demanded that Hamas recognize Israel and halt all violence as a condition for inclusion in future talks. For their part, Abbas and Fatah grudgingly accepted their Hamas rival into the government. However, the cutoff of international aid to the PA led to serious economic problems for Palestinians living in its territory. Worsening this was Hamas's abduction of an Israeli soldier in June 2006, which led to fierce Israeli attacks in Gaza, including an air strike on Haniyeh's office the following month. Beyond all this, the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah degenerated into full-scale battles during the second half of 2006. So serious did these clashes become that in December 2006, Haniyeh himself and his bodyguards came under fire after they crossed the border from Egypt into Gaza.

Haniyeh met with Abbas in hopes of finding a political solution that would end the internecine fighting, and that would end the PA's international isolation. The two men agreed in September 2006 to create a Hamas-Fatah national unity government in the Palestinian Legislative Council to replace the reigning Hamas-led government. But the two sides disagreed on the composition of the new government, and intra-Palestinian fighting continued. In March 2007, the two sides finally reached an agreement and formed a unity government.


Name: Ismail Abd al-Salam Haniyeh (Isma'il Haniyya, Hanieh)

Birth: 1962 or 1963, Shati ("Beach") Refugee Camp, Gaza

Family: Wife, twelve children

Nationality: Palestinian

Education: B.A., M.A., Islamic University of Gaza


  • 1983: Joins Student Council, Islamic University of Gaza
  • 1988: Joins Hamas
  • 1989: Sentenced to three years in prison by Israel occupation authorities in Gaza
  • 1992: Deported by Israel to southern Lebanon
  • 1993: Returns to Gaza, appointed dean of Islamic University of Gaza
  • 1998: Becomes office manager and aide to Ahmad Yasin
  • 2003: Survives Israeli assassination attempt
  • 2006: 21 February becomes prime minister of the Palestinian Authority


Haniyeh's background as a refugee certainly shaped his worldview and his hard-line commitment to resist Israel. The 1948 War saw the state of Israel created on 77 percent of Palestine. Israel later conquered the remaining 23 percent (the West Bank and Gaza) in 1967. The Oslo peace process begun by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993 involved negotiations over what percentage of that 23 percent of Palestine would end up becoming a self-governing Palestinian entity. For 1948 refugees such as Haniyeh, the Oslo process therefore did not satisfy what they had been demanding for decades: repatriation (the "right of return") to their original homes in what now was Israel. A substitute Palestinian homeland somewhere in Gaza and the West Bank was no substitute. Hamas activists such as Haniyeh therefore refused to concede the loss of any of historic Palestine, let alone more than three-quarters of it.

Such activists also argued that only force could end Israel's occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. For them it was only the militancy of Islamic activists like those in Hamas during the first intifada (1987–1991) and the second (started in 2000), not peaceful diplomacy, which forced Israel into negotiations. The attacks on Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon by the Lebanese group Hizbullah, that prompted an Israeli withdrawal in 2000, only added to this conviction.


Abd al-Aziz Rantisi (1947–2004) was a leading figure in Hamas. He was born to a Muslim Arab family in Yibna, Palestine, but as an infant became a refugee along with his family during the 1948 War, and grew up in Gaza. After completing medical studies at Alexandria University in Egypt in 1971, he practiced medicine in Gaza and was head of pediatrics at Khan Yunis Hospital until dismissed by Israeli occupation authorities in 1983. After that he lectured at the Islamic University of Gaza and practiced in clinics.

Rantisi was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and helped establish the Islamic Center in Gaza in 1973 along with Ahmad Yasin, the brotherhood's senior leader. After formation of Hamas in 1988, Rantisi became one of its main figures. He effectively ran the organization after the Israelis imprisoned Yasin in May 1989. Rantisi himself was imprisoned and eventually deported to southern Lebanon in December 1992 along with 414 other Islamic militants. He became the deportees' spokesman, and gained international media exposure as a result. Although they allowed him to return, the Israelis again imprisoned him from December 1993 until April 1997. By that time, most of Gaza was under the control of the Palestinian Authority, which itself jailed Rantisi on several occasions thereafter.

Rantisi became Hamas's leader in Gaza after the Israelis killed Yasin in a helicopter missile attack in March 2004. The Israelis assassinated Rantisi and two others, including his son, in a similar missile attack a few weeks later on 17 April 2004, as they rode in a car in Gaza.


We are surprised that such conditions [that Hamas recognize Israel] are imposed on us. Why don't they direct such conditions and questions to Israel? Has Israel respected their agreements? Israel has bypassed practically all agreements. We say: Let Israel recognize the legitimate rights of the Palestinians first and then we will have a position regarding this. Which Israel should we recognize? The Israel of 1917; the Israel of 1936; the Israel of 1948; the Israel of 1956; or the Israel of 1967? Which borders and which Israel? Israel has to recognize first the Palestinian state and its borders. At least then we will know what we are talking about.


Hamas has been freely elected. Our people have given us their confidence and we pledge to defend their rights and do our best to run their affairs through good governance. If we are boycotted in spite of this democratic choice—as we have been by the US and some of its allies—we will persist, and our friends have pledged to fill the gap [in financial contributions]. We have confidence in the peoples of the world, record numbers of whom identify with our struggle. This is a good time for peace-making—if the world wants peace.


A final influence on Hamas activists such as Haniyeh was the perceived bankruptcy of the secular PLO. They understood it to be corrupt, and a failure for having given up armed struggle in return for a peace process that had not worked.


Like so much else about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, international opinion about Haniyeh varies according to the ideological predisposition of those making the judgment. Many in the United States and Israel denounce Haniyeh as the most senior representative in the Palestinian territories of a movement they consider a bloody terrorist organization. For many Palestinians in Gaza, he is viewed as an honest and sincere pragmatist heading a democratically elected parliament—a rarity in the Middle East—and a senior figure in what they see as a liberation movement. Haniyeh also gained a reputation among Palestinians as a tough-talking, but nevertheless straight-talking politician who lived among and listened to his refugee constituents, rather than just talking at them.


It remains too early to assess Haniyeh's legacy. But the simple fact of his becoming the first non-Fatah prime minister of the PA, and the first representative of a Hamas-led government elected by the PA electorate, is enough to earn him a place in the history books.


El-Saleh, Ali. "Interview with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh." Asharq al-Awsat, English edition, 11 August 2006. Available from http://www.asharqalawsat.com/english.

Haniyeh, Ismail. "A Just Peace or No Peace." Guardian, 31 March 2006. Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk.

Mishal, Shaul, and Avraham Sela. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Toensing, Chris. "Behind the Gaza Breakdown." Middle East Report, 18 December 2006. Available from http://www.merip.org.

Weymouth, Lally. "'Not Lovers of Blood': The Hamas Leader on Israel and the Palestinians." Newsweek, 26 February 2006. Available from http://www.newsweek.com.

                                       Michael R. Fischbach