Backgrounder Who’s Who in Hamas? a Look at the Palestinian Group’s Leaders

Ever since the targeted killing of Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March 2004, the big boss of Hamas is Khaled Meshaal, head of the Hamas political bureau, in exile in Damascus. Meshaal, 50, was born in the West Bank village of Silwad near Ramallah. Following the Six Day War in 1967 he emigrated to Kuwait, where he studied and taught physics at the University of Kuwait.

He moved to Jordan in 1990, where he served as head of Hamas in that country. In 1996 he was appointed head of Hamas’ political wing.

Meshaal was the target of an abortive assassination attempt that was one of the Mossad’s biggest publicized fiascos. On Sept. 25, 1997, Mossad agents in Jordan accosted Mashal on the street and managed to inject him with a toxic substance, but Jordanian authorities discovered the assassination attempt in time, arrested the agents, pressured Israel into turning over the antidote and saved Meshaal’s life.

But there was more: As a quid pro quo, Jordan forced Israel to release Yassin, Hamas’ founder and spiritual leader, in exchange for the Mossad agents involved in the attempt on Meshaal.

Two years later, in November 1999, Meshaal was deported from Jordan to Syria.

Although Meshaal was instrumental a year ago in reaching Hamas’ “tahdia,” or calming-down agreement, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he is known for his tough, uncompromising stand toward Israel.

Local Hamas leaders tried to assume a relatively pragmatic guise during the recent election campaign, but Meshaal declared last month in Damascus that “we will not enter a new truce, and our people are preparing for a new round of conflict.”

He made similar statements after Hamas’ victory in the Palestinians’ Jan. 25 parliamentary elections, but did come up with a proposal that some saw as a reasonable solution for the present stalemate in the Palestinian balance of power.

Meshaal suggested forming a Palestinian army that would unify all militias, theoretically ending the present state of anarchy and defusing demands on Hamas to disarm and renounce violence. He also said Hamas would abide by the P.A.’s current agreements with Israel “as long as it is in the interest of our people.”

The most senior Hamas personality inside the territories is Dr. Ismail Haniyeh, the most likely candidate to head the first P.A. government under Hamas. Haniyeh is considered more pragmatic than Meshaal; like Meshaal, he too escaped an Israeli attempt on his life.

Along with Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, Haniyeh led Hamas in the territories after Yassin’s death. He is among those who pushed Hamas to participate in the elections, and headed the party in both municipal and parliamentary elections.

Israel placed Haniyeh on the targeted-killing list following a suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus in August 2003. Two months later, the Israeli air force bombed a house in Gaza while Haniyeh, Yassin and leading Hamas bombmaker Mohammad Deif were there. None of the three was hurt, however.

Haniyeh has spoken again and again in favor of violence against Israel. Last year, he called Hamas’ success in municipal elections proof that a majority of Palestinians endorse jihad, or holy war, against Israel.

Commentators found marginally positive elements in a recent hardline interview Haniyeh gave to Israeli television, in which he talked about “resistance according to the interests of our people” — which some took to mean that violence could be suspended, under certain circumstances — and the wish “to work in cooperation and coordination with all the Palestinian people,” indicating Hamas’ desire to form a national unity government with Fatah.

Haniyeh, 44, was born in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza. He began studying Arabic literature at the Islamic University in Gaza in 1987, shortly before the outbreak of the first intifada. He served three years in jail shortly after Hamas’ founding the next year.

He was among 400 Hamas activists deported to Lebanon in 1992, who eventually were allowed to return. P.A. security forces arrested Haniyeh in December 2001, but released him a short time later.

Haniyeh returned to Gaza and was appointed dean of the Islamic University. In 1997, after Yassin was released from jail, Haniyeh was appointed chief of his office, a position he kept until Yassin’s death in 2004.

Second in rank in the territories is Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar, Yassin’s personal physician and close friend. He helped Yassin found Hamas shortly after the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987.

Al-Zahar, 61, was born in Gaza to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother. He studied medicine at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, specializing in general surgery. It was in Cairo that he was influenced by Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose ideology nourished Hamas.

Al-Zahar also was among the 400 Islamic activists deported by Israel to Lebanon in 1992. Back in Gaza, al-Zahar soon clashed with Palestinian authorities. He was arrested several times by P.A. security forces and at one stage spent seven months in a Palestinian jail.

On Sept. 10, 2003, only three days after a failed attempt to kill Yassin, Israel bombed al-Zahar’s home in Gaza, destroying it completely. Al-Zahar survived the attack, but his 25-year-old son, Khaled, and a bodyguard were killed.

Following the killing of Abdel Aziz Rantissi in spring 2004, al-Zahar emerged as his successor.

Al-Zahar was influential in reaching the informal truce with Israel and in arranging Hamas’ participation in the recent parliamentary elections.

Dr. Mousa Abdel Marzuk, 55, is second-in-command to Meshaal in Damascus. He headed Hamas’ political bureau from 1992-’96, but was deported from Jordan in 1995. He was arrested in the United States in 1997 but was released after King Hussein of Jordan permitted his return, only to deport him two years later to Damascus.

Mohammed Deif, 40, is one of the commanders of the Izz a-Din al-Kassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, and top on Israel’s most wanted list. Deif is believed to have been behind many of the suicide bombing attacks of 1996 that soured Israelis on the peace process and paved the way for the ouster of the Labor government and the election of the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel attempted to kill Deif several times, to no avail.

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