The new Hamas leader has made his first public appearance, visiting people expressing solidarity for hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh stopped by a tent containing the supporters on Monday, two days after Hamas announced that the former Gaza prime minister had replaced Qatar-based Khaled Mashaal in the Islamic terror group’s top position.
Haniyeh’s rise was the latest sign of a power shift in Hamas from the diaspora to Gaza, which has been under Hamas rule since a 2007 takeover.
The shift comes at a time of growing financial pressure on Gaza by Hamas’ main rival, Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to force the group to cede ground.
Haniyeh also faces movement restrictions that could limit his leadership role. An Israeli-Egyptian border blockade has largely sealed Gaza since 2007.
For his first appearance as Hamas leader, Haniyeh chose a symbol of elusive Palestinian unity – a solidarity tent where several political factions are represented, including Hamas and Mr Abbas’ Fatah movement.
The hunger strike of close to 900 Palestinian prisoners, who demand better conditions from Israel, reached its 22nd day on Monday.
“It’s my honour to shoulder the responsibility of leading the political bureau of this large movement of holy resistance,” Haniyeh said after arriving at the tent in downtown Gaza City.
He said that the fate of the prisoners remains a top priority for Hamas.
Haniyeh arrived at the tent in a white SUV, accompanied by bodyguards. Local officials and security chiefs lined up to greet him.
Haniyeh, who also served as Mashaal’s deputy for four years, is a familiar figure in Gaza, a tiny piece of land on the Mediterranean which is home to two million people.
He was born in the Shati refugee camp on the outskirts of Gaza City, where he still lives in a heavily guarded compound.
Haniyeh was named Palestinian prime minister in 2006, after Hamas defeated the Fatah movement in parliament elections.
Mr Abbas dismissed Haniyeh in June 2007, after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
Hamas ignored the dismissal and a Haniyeh-led Hamas government remained in place in Gaza, while Abbas appointed a rival administration in autonomous West Bank enclaves under his control.
The Haniyeh administration resigned in 2014, as part of a deal with Fatah to set up a transitional government for both the West Bank and Gaza that was to pave the way for national elections.
The deal collapsed, with both political camps refusing to relinquish control in their respective territories.