The military operation conducted by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip aims, among other things, to definitively deal with Hamas, particularly its highest local official, Yahia Sinwar. In the uncertain hypothesis of achieving this objective, the inevitable question of succession would arise within Palestinian political circles. At least two names regularly emerge: Marwan Barghouti and Mohammad Dahlan.
On October 7, 2023, Hamas launched an unprecedented attack against Israel from the Gaza Strip. Behind this blow dealt to the Israeli state, there was a presumed mastermind: Yahya Sinwar, one of Hamas’s top executives after Ismail Haniyeh and the highest-ranking figure established within the enclave.
Yahya Sinwar: The Target
The individual who was to become the prime target for Israeli intelligence services was born in 1962 in the Gaza Strip, within the Khan Younes refugee camp. He quickly became involved in resistance movements in Israel, which led to his first two incarcerations in 1982 and then in 1985.
After his release, he founded in 1987 the “jihad and preaching units,” a precursor organization to the Hamas Internal Security Forces. He led them, instilling terror in Gaza, which landed him in Israeli prisons for a third time in 1989. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison after being accused of the murder of two Israeli soldiers and four Palestinians suspected of collaboration.
However, in 2011, Hamas negotiated his release and that of 1,026 other Palestinian detainees in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured in 2006. He returned as a hero to Gaza before being elected head of Hamas’s political bureau for four years in 2017, and re-elected in 2021.
For the Netanyahu government, Sinwar is the man to eliminate. He is not only held responsible for the October 7 attack but also for all the Hamas attacks against Israeli civilians since 2011. In its determination to eradicate the Palestinian Islamist movement, Israel is pursuing Yahya Sinwar, considered the leader of the Gaza Strip and the primary target.
Who Will Succeed Hamas?
In the hypothetical scenario where Israel would achieve its goal and neutralize Hamas, the question of political leadership would persist. A takeover by Israel seems hardly feasible, as reminded by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on Monday, November 6.
Mahmoud Abbas, the current President of the Palestinian Authority, increasingly unpopular, cannot be counted on to unify Palestinians around a political figure. According to a poll published by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) in September 2023, 78% of Palestinians wanted him to resign.
In this context, who could then take up the political leadership in the Gaza Strip? The main challenge would be to find a consensual personality, not only for Palestinians themselves but also for Tel Aviv and a part of the international community, especially Western countries. From this perspective, at least two names have resurfaced in recent days.
Marwan Barghouti: The People’s Favorite
One of them is Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned for over twenty years in Israeli prisons. Born in 1959 in Kobar, in the West Bank, he was the former leader of Tanzim, the armed wing of Fatah, during Yasser Arafat’s leadership. He was notably sentenced to five life imprisonments for his role during the Second Intifada.
Although locked behind bars, Barghouti did not remain idle. He rather worked towards unifying all Palestinian political factions, through the publication in 2006 of a text jointly signed by incarcerated Hamas , Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and PFLP officials.
This “Prisoners’ document” included the principle of negotiation with Israel, in the framework of a peace process. He left Fatah, now led by Mahmoud Abbas, one year earlier, and created his own faction, Al-Mustaqbal.
Marwan Barghouti has always enjoyed great popularity among the Palestinian population, especially among the youth. At every escalation of the conflict, his name is mentioned as an alternative to Mahmoud Abbas. And for a reason: by dissociating himself from his former party, now perceived as deeply corrupt, Barghouti has gained a reputation for integrity, reinforced by his captivity.
Moreover, the duration of this situation gives him a particular aura, with the Palestinian public considering him a hero of the “resistance,” especially since, unlike Hamas and Islamic Jihad, he is seen as a secular actor.
According to the 2023 PCPSR survey, Barghouti emerges as the Palestinians’ preferred candidate to succeed Mahmoud Abbas, garnering 34% of the votes, while Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in exile in Qatar, would come in second with 17%.
Mohammad Dahlan: The Negotiator
Mohammad Dahlan cannot boast the same aura. Born in 1962 in the Khan Younes camp, he was a prominent figure in the First Intifada before getting involved in the preliminary negotiations for the Oslo Accords.
In exile in the United Arab Emirates since 2011, Mohammad Dahlan, former head of security in the Gaza Strip and an emblematic figure of the First Intifada, retains significant stature despite his expulsion from Fatah and the corruption allegations against him.
Thanks to an impressive international influence network he developed over the last decade in the upper echelons of Emirati politics, he alone was able to offer more Covid-19 vaccines to Gaza than the Palestinian Authority. This also allows him to have friends in all camps, which could be crucial in future negotiations.
However, Dahlan is perceived by some Palestinians as a traitor, especially because of the 2020 peace treaty between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Indeed, Dahlan is one of the closest advisors to President Mohammed bin Zayed, publicly referred to as his “brother.”
He is also criticised for his sympathy for a one-state solution, which many consider to be more than illusory today, especially as it is supported by only 27% of Palestinians.