Born in 1955 in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniya studied Arabic literature at the Islamic University of Gaza in the 1980s. During the early stages of the First Palestinian Intifada (1987-1993), he helped Hamas plan many of its terror attacks against Israel. Arrested in 1989, Haniya was briefly exiled to Lebanon in 1992—along with 400 other Hamas terrorists—before being permitted to return to Gaza in 1994. During his time in Lebanon, Haniya formed a close friendship with Hamas founder Ahmad Yassin, a relationship that hastened Haniya’s meteoric rise through the terror group’s organizational ranks. At one point, he served as bureau chief for Yassin.
Because of his involvement in terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens, Haniya was targeted for assassination by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). In 2003 an Israeli military plane dropped a bomb on a house in Gaza in an effort to kill Haniya, Yassin, and bombmaker Mohammad Deif, but all three escaped relatively unharmed.
Shortly after Yassin’s death in 2004, Haniya was chosen to lead the slate of Hamas candidates running in the December 2005 Palestinian parliamentary elections, elections in which Hamas ultimately won majority control of the Gaza-based government. Having always favored violence over diplomacy, Haniya happily declared that Hamas’s victory at the polls proved that a majority of Palestinians were in favor of terrorism against Israel. In March 2006 Haniya was sworn in as prime minister of the new government by Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas.
In an October 2006 speech, Haniya stated that Hamas’s legitimacy as an organization was derived directly “from the legitimacy of the jihad … against the Zionist occupation.” Adding that the Hamas-led government was “born from the womb of the resistance, from the womb of the martyrs,” Haniya pledged that Hamas would “not change its constant principles,” and that it would “stay faithful to jihad, to resistance, to guns, to Palestine and to Jerusalem.”
In December 2006 Haniya expressed gratitude for the support of the Islamic theocracy that ruled Iran, and pledged that Hamas “will never recognize the usurper Zionist government and will continue our jihad-like movement until the liberation of Jerusalem.”
Haniya resigned from his post as prime minister on February 15, 2007, as part of the process by which a unity government between Hamas and Fatah was instituted. Thirty-one days later, he was sworn in as head of the new cabinet.
Throughout his tenure in government, Haniya has consistently preached a death-cult mentality to his enthusiastic followers in Gaza. In 2010 he said, on Hamas-controlled Al-Aqsa TV: “This is a nation of martyrdom and martyrdom-seeking, a nation of Jihad for the sake of Allah.”
Moreover, according to Haniya, the dictates of Allah preclude the possibility of Hamas ever deviating from a jihadist course: “The strategic option of Jihad was determined by Allah for this nation. At no time may Muslims—especially under occupation—negotiate whether there should or shouldn’t be resistance or Jihad…. We have no choice in this matter. The strategic option was determined when the first arrow was shot, the first spear cast, and the first bullet fired.”
More than just a religious imperative, Haniya preaches that the importance of terrorism as a strategy lies in the fact that it works so well on Jews, who, unlike the Palestinians, “love life more than any other people, and they prefer not to die.”
“We believe that this continues an American policy that is based on oppression and on the shedding of Arab and Muslim blood. Regardless of the different views in Arab and Islamic circles, we, of course, condemn the assassination or killing of a Muslim mujahid and an Arab. We pray for Allah to cover him with His mercy, next to the prophets, the righteous, and the martyrs.”
At a December 2011 rally marking the 24th anniversary of Hamas’s founding, Haniya issued a call for the formation of an Arab army “to liberate Jerusalem and the Aksa mosque.” He then told the 350,000 cheering Palestinians in attendance: “Resistance is the way and it is a strategic choice to liberate Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and to remove the invaders from the blessed land of Palestine.”
In an April 2014 interview with Al Jazeera, Haniya said: “As far as we’re concerned, the issue of recognition of Israel has been settled” in “our political literature, in our Islamic thought and in our Jihadist culture, on which we base our moves: Recognition of Israel is out of the question.”
This profile is adapted, in part, from “Voices of Palestine: Ismail Haniya,” by Frank Crimi (December 22, 2011).