top of page

Internal Strife: The Battle for Leadership within Hamas amid the Gaza War

The leaders of Hamas who reside outside of Gaza have been kept in the dark about important details of the October 7 attack, and are now vying for position in postwar arrangements that may be beyond their power to shape. As the conflict between Hamas and Israel has escalated, tensions have arisen between leaders in Gaza and those in other countries. Yahya al-Sinwar, the undisputed leader of Hamas in Gaza, remains focused on continuing the fight and believes that if Hamas can withstand Israel's punishing attacks without being completely destroyed, it can declare a "divine victory" similar to what Hezbollah did in 2006. However, leaders of Hamas in Qatar, Lebanon, and Turkey are already considering the group's role in any future political structure that will govern Gaza. These tensions mirror longstanding disagreements within Hamas and can be better understood by comparing the current situation to the past.

The Struggle for Control Prior to the War Since Hamas's coup against the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in 2007, the group's leaders within the territories have been gaining power and influence at the expense of its external leadership. Based in Damascus at the time, the external leaders managed to remain in control for a while since they still had control over the organization's finances and relationships with Hezbollah, Iran, and other actors. However, the ground-level Hamas leaders were making day-to-day decisions about running the Strip and eventually developed systems of taxation and extortion that reduced their dependence on funding from abroad. In August 2008, a group of young Hamas members with ties to commanders in the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades were elected to the Gaza political bureau. By 2009, the organization experienced leadership divisions and conflicting statements on various issues, including whether to continue the ceasefire with Israel that had ended their most recent conflict. That year, Sinwar was appointed president of the council of Hamas prisoners in Israel after a lengthy election process. In 2010, Hamas's overall leader, Khaled Mashal, attempted to bring the organization closer to Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East and lessen its reliance on Iran. However, Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, the group's leader in Gaza, opposed this shift and prevented it from happening, resulting in a partnership of convenience between the two men. In 2011, Israel released Sinwar as part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, unintentionally paving the way for his rise to power.

In February 2017, Sinwar was chosen as the head of Hamas's Gaza political bureau through a secret election. Initially, Haniyeh and his deputy Saleh al-Arouri helped Sinwar shift the group's focus to Gaza. However, over time, Sinwar's harsh leadership style and personality led Haniyeh and other top officials to leave for Qatar and Turkey, resulting in a significant rift between the internal and external leadership. Although Haniyeh remained the chairman of the political bureau, Sinwar's control on the ground gave him de facto leadership over the group's activities in Gaza. For years before the current war, Sinwar misled Israeli leaders into believing that he was a pragmatist who prioritized the Hamas political project in Gaza. However, his background as a Hamas enforcer who investigated and murdered Palestinians suspected of cooperating with Israel revealed his true priorities. The October 7 attack demonstrated his desire to lead an assault on Israel that he hoped would unite Muslims in the region against Israel. This calculation and the details of the attack seem to have taken Haniyeh and the external leadership by surprise. They were aware of and approved Sinwar's plans for a large-scale offensive against Israel at some point and participated in discussions with officials from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force and Hezbollah. However, they were not informed about the scale of the plan or its timing, which reportedly changed at least a couple of times. (Note: These details and the points that follow are based on the authors' extensive private conversations with numerous regional sources.)

The specific planning for the attack was carried out by a small group of commanders, including Sinwar, his brother Muhammad, and Marwan Issa, who was the de facto military chief of Hamas. Although Hamas units had conducted attack drills for months, the commanders of its five regional brigades and their twenty-four battalions were not given the specific plan until a few hours before the operation. This plan involved breaching the border fences, storming Israeli military positions, murdering as many civilians as possible, taking hostages, and destroying Israeli towns. Some commanders were instructed to dispatch fighters to the West Bank and link up with Hamas followers in Hebron, but this never happened. Others were asked to maintain their presence inside Israel for weeks if possible. These details were not known to the external leadership of Hamas, who are now trying to prevent a complete defeat in Gaza and maintain a role for the organization in any post-war political structure. In the aftermath of the attack on October 7, external leaders criticized the scope and brutality of the attack and went into damage control mode. They publicly denied that Sinwar's men had killed women and children, blaming the Israel Defense Forces for the civilian deaths. However, they later expressed reservations about taking women and children hostage. In private conversations with Arab and Palestinian interlocutors, some Hamas leaders sharply condemned Sinwar's "megalomaniac" search for grandeur.

Specifically, they accuse him of misinterpreting prewar communications from Iran and Hezbollah, regarding ambiguous expressions of backing as unwavering assurances to launch further assaults against Israel and rescue Hamas from annihilation. As a result, Sinwar opted to launch a large-scale attack, fully aware that Israel would have no option but to respond in kind. The group's top brass has communicated to foreign dignitaries that Sinwar should have settled for a much smaller terrorist operation aimed at capturing hostages and facilitating prisoner exchanges. Furthermore, another prominent Hamas figure, the former communications minister Yousef al-Mansi, went so far as to tell Israeli interrogators that Sinwar had set Gaza back by two hundred years and effectively called for his removal from power.

Hamas is currently debating its next steps, with some members, including Haniyeh, Arouri, and al-Hayya, holding meetings with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization and opposition factions in Fatah. These talks have included figures such as former PA foreign minister Nasser al-Qudwa and Samir Mashharawi, a deputy to Mohammad Dahlan in the "Reformist Democratic Current" faction supported by the United Arab Emirates. The discussions have focused on the possibility of integrating Hamas into the PLO and other plans for the "morning after" in Gaza. However, these talks have been met with opposition from Sinwar, who has deemed them "outrageous" and demanded that all contact with the PLO and dissident Fatah factions be discontinued until a permanent ceasefire is reached.

Despite Sinwar's directive, the external leadership has not followed through. In a televised speech on December 13 marking the thirty-sixth anniversary of Hamas's founding, Haniyeh expressed his willingness to engage in discussions about establishing a unified Palestinian leadership. Similarly, in an hour-long interview with Al-Monitor on December 11, senior official Mousa Abu Marzouk discussed Hamas's vision for the day after the war, the possibility of the group joining the PLO, and even hinted at potential recognition of Israel. However, he later retracted his statement about the PLO's recognition of Israel after it gained traction on social media.

In response to the outreach, PA President Mahmoud Abbas instructed PLO Executive Committee members Jibril Rajoub and Azzam al-Ahmed, who have maintained contact with Hamas, to initiate talks with Haniyeh and his colleagues. The focus of these discussions is to draft a reconciliation outline between the two movements based on adopting a common policy and forming an inclusive leadership structure. The main obstacles include Hamas's refusal to adhere to the Oslo Accords, relinquish weapons, and insistence on holding general elections within a year.

However, as long as Sinwar survives, any deal negotiated abroad will be ineffective unless he agrees. Sinwar perceives the current talks as an external leadership inclination to doubt and undermine his goal of maintaining Hamas control over Gaza. This echoes past disagreements, such as in 2004 when a Hamas official's proposal to give up the "secret underground apparatus" was rejected by the Gaza leadership cadre. Sinwar's trusted emissary, Ghazi Hamad, has become silent, and communication between Sinwar's underground bunker and the external political bureau has decreased.

Sinwar warned Haniyeh to cease efforts to broker a new hostage deal in Cairo, citing the unmet precondition of a full Israeli ceasefire. The warning was accompanied by a rocket salvo towards Tel Aviv and threats against Israeli hostages in Gaza.

In conclusion, the war's progression will determine whether Sinwar and other militant Hamas figures can dictate the group's future course. However, it is crucial to avoid a Hezbollah-style situation where Hamas assumes governance roles while remaining an independent entity with weapons and funding streams. Such a scenario would be disastrous for both Palestinians and Israelis.


bottom of page