Man who led Hamas to victory is chosen to form government

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- He is a product of the Palestinian refugee life and a talented orator who is called upon regularly to build bridges with political rivals.

Ismail Haniya, who led the radical Islamic group Hamas to a stunning victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections, was chosen yesterday to assemble a government that he would lead as prime minister.

During a two-hour meeting, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas formally offered the leadership job to Haniya, a former university administrator who is widely considered a pragmatist. Haniya said after the session that he would review the offer with other Hamas leaders and reply soon.

Haniya, 43, would face daunting challenges in trying to set up and lead the next Cabinet.

The Palestinian Authority, desperately short of cash, faces threats by the United States and Europe to cut foreign aid unless a Hamas-led government agrees to recognize Israel, renounce violence and honor agreements with Israel.

Hamas also faces reticence from Fatah, led by Abbas, which has rebuffed overtures to create a broad-based unity government. Abbas has called upon the incoming government to accept Fatah's approach toward peacemaking with Israel, which focuses on negotiations leading to side-by-side states.

Complicating matters, the government Haniya would lead will be split geographically because Hamas members in the Gaza Strip, including Haniya, are barred from crossing Israel to reach the West Bank, which has come to be the Palestinian Authority administrative center.

Last weekend's swearing-in ceremony for the new parliament took place simultaneously in the West Bank city of Ramallah and Gaza City, connected by a poor-quality video link.

"No doubt it is not an easy mission," said Khalail Abu Laila, a pharmacist and Hamas leader who has known Haniya for 20 years.

Though a political neophyte, Haniya has a public following that reaches beyond Hamas' traditional base in the refugee camps, such as the one at the edge of Gaza City where Haniya was born and where he lives.

Haniya, one of Hamas' top spokesmen in recent years, headed the slate in Jan. 25 elections that gave the Islamic group 74 of 132 legislative seats. The election win was the latest step in Haniya's long involvement in the Islamic movement, going back to his days as a student leader at Islamic University, where he studied Arabic-language literature.

Over the years, Haniya worked closely with Hamas leaders such as Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdelaziz Rantisi, both of whom were killed in separate Israeli airstrikes in 2004 during a campaign targeting the Hamas leadership.

Haniya grew popular inside the movement through a commanding speaking style and elegant Arabic that made him a public favorite.

In his 20s, he stood out as a preacher and soon drew overflowing crowds to the mosques where he delivered sermons.

Deeply involved in the Islamic movement, Haniya joined Hamas, which had been formed by Yassin in 1987, amid the first Palestinian uprising against Israel. The group became a rival to the Fatah faction led by Yasser Arafat, and for years it criticized and clashed with the ruling Palestinian movement.

Haniya was among more than 400 Hamas leaders whom Israel deported to southern Lebanon in 1992. By then, he had served three stints in Israeli jails.

The deportees included much of Hamas' future political leadership. A photo collage of the deportees shows Haniya with a stern face, his thick beard not yet gray. Also pictured are Mahmoud Zahar, who will head Hamas' legislative faction, and Aziz Dweik, the new parliament speaker.

Starting in the late 1990s, Haniya joined the inner circle of Hamas as the top aide to Yassin. Haniya learned the ins and outs of the movement and gained the affection of Rantisi, who groomed him for a more prominent role. Haniya was voted onto the movement's leadership council, which represents Hamas membership in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and abroad.

The pace of his rise quickened after Yassin and Rantisi were killed, opening the way for new leaders. Haniya increasingly came to be the public face and voice of Hamas in frequent radio and television appearances.

By most accounts, Haniya's relations with other groups, including Fatah, remain good. Cordial ties could prove handy in negotiations for a new government.

Haniya and other Hamas leaders have been talking with representatives of smaller parties in hopes of persuading them to join a new governing coalition. Fatah leaders have said they prefer to let Hamas govern - and risk failure - on its own.

Some Palestinians say the coming weeks could be major test of Haniya's ability to forge unity among the Palestinian factions.

"This next step is very important," said Jamal El-Khoudary, an independent from Gaza City who was elected to the parliament with Hamas' endorsement. "The picture will be completed when we see what kind of government is going to be formed."

Haniya's reputation as a relative moderate stems in part from a manner that many describe as understated, even tranquil.

Haniya is credited with having shrewdly managed the Hamas campaign, which emphasized corruption and disorder under Fatah and minimized Hamas' militant ideology toward Israel and its calls for an Islamic state.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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