Hamas, the Islamic group that controls the Gaza Strip, is set to hold elections to the leadership of its political wing in the coming months, reports suggest.
The vote that takes place every four years and that's being held by the group's general Shura council is meant to man the Strip's number one post, responsible for Hamas' diplomatic ties with the outside world as well as the acquiring of funding and humanitarian assistance.
So far, Ismail Haniyeh, who has held the position since 2017, has managed to handle the Islamic group's political operations from Qatar and Turkey, where he is currently residing, and reports suggest that he might want to go back to the Strip after the vote, if he gets re-elected.
The only problem for him is that his victory is not guaranteed. The two people who are set to challenge him in the upcoming race are the man who used to lead Hamas' politburo in the past, Khaled Mashaal, and the man who is currently heading the Izz A-ddin Al Qassam brigades, the group's military branch - Yehiya Sinwar.
"Sinwar is popular among not only the Palestinian people but also among the grass roots and the top echelon of the organisation, so he has good chances of winning. Mashaal, however, is out of the question," believes Saad Nimr, a professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
But not everyone agrees. In his article, Yoni Ben Menachem, one of Israel's leading experts on Palestinian affairs, writes that Mashaal is the top contender for the job, primarily because of "his charisma, strategic views and his ties with Muslim, Arab and even some European states".
In the past, Mashaal held the post for more than a decade, from 1996 till 2007. As a seasoned politician, it was he who played a pivotal role in Hamas' major wars with Israel, including the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict (Operation Protective Edge) that had claimed the lives over 2,100 Gaza residents and 67 Israeli soldiers, and it was him who bargained with the Jewish state, eventually leading to the release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped by the group in 2006.
At the same time, his tenure has also known ups and downs in relations with Iran, which has been allegedly supplying Hamas with military and monetary assistance.
In recent years relations between Hamas and Iran have deteriorated and Mashaal has even called them 'stagnant' following the Islamic group's support for the Syrian revolution against Iran-backed President Bashar Al Assad.
Ben Menachem believes Sinwar, who runs the military operations in Gaza, eyes with concern Mashaal's interest in running for the post, not only because Hamas that has been reliant on foreign funding and cannot afford to lose Iran, but also because the election of Mashaal would have dire political consequences for the Strip.
"Sinwar is concerned that in the event of Mashaal's re-election, he will move Hamas' decision making base from Gaza, where it is currently located, to another destination, most probably Turkey, which will make it difficult to be attached to what's happening on the ground," he writes.
This is why, believes the Israeli expert, Sinwar wants to try his luck and lock horns with Mashaal to make sure he never assumes that post again.
Sigh of Relief or More Trouble?
For Israel, Sinwar's potential victory could bring a sigh of relief.
Since the moment of his appointment to the post of Hamas' chief military commander, he has improved ties with Egypt, something that led to the opening of the Rafiah crossing that connects the enclave to the outside world, and has implemented a pragmatic policy aimed at promoting the group's agenda without bringing to a full-scale war with the Jewish state.
However, Nimr believes none of the options on offer are considered as having a positive impact by Israel.
"The Islamic group's policy will remain intact so it doesn't matter who wins," he said referring to the political platform of Hamas that rejects the recognition of Israel and that calls on the Palestinians to pursue an armed struggle against Tel Aviv.
"Israel doesn't like Sinwar, to say the least. He is a man of his word, who wants to ease the blockade on Gaza [imposed by the Jewish state in 2007 - ed.], so if he gets elected, I doubt there will be cheerful crowds in Tel Aviv supporting for the move," he concluded.