GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Islamic militant group Hamas on Tuesday was holding a leadership election in its Gaza Strip stronghold, a race with deep implications for its relations with Israel and other regional players, as well as upcoming Palestinian elections.
A Hamas official said the field had narrowed down to a tight race between Yehiyeh Sinwar, the group's current firebrand leader, and Nizar Awadallah, a co-founder of the movement. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations of the secretive group.
The Gaza Strip is Hamas' most important area of activity. The Islamic group, which opposes Israel's existence, violently seized control of the territory from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Since then, it has fought three wars and numerous skirmishes against Israel, holding on to power despite a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade that has devastated the economy.
Sinwar is a former member of the group's militant wing who spent over two decades in an Israeli prison after being convicted of murdering two Israelis. He was released in a 2011 prisoner swap. Sinwar maintains close ties to the militant wing and has often promoted a confrontational approach toward Israel.
Awadallah was one of Hamas' founders in the late 1980s and has closer ties to the group's political leaders. But little is known about his positions on key issues.
The Hamas leadership race comes ahead of Palestinian parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled in May and July. It was not immediately clear what effect it would have.
Tuesday's election also could have deep repercussions on Hamas' dealings with Israel as well as other regional powers.
The group is divided into rival camps. One is loyal to Israel's archenemy Iran and favors continued military confrontations with Israel. The other camp, backed by regional players Turkey and Qatar, favors a more pragmatic approach in hopes of easing the blockade.
The Gaza election is part of a broader process of choosing the group's politburo, or central decision making body. That process began in February and is expected to wrap up by the end of the month.
The group's supreme leader is Ismail Haniyeh, a former Gaza leader who has lived in exile in Qatar and Turkey for the past two years.