Haniyeh was born in the Shati refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, although the exact date of his birth is unknown. He began studying Arabic literature at the Islamic University in Gaza in 1987, where he became active in Islamic student movements. In 1992, he was deported to Lebanon along with 400 other Hamas activists but was eventually allowed to return to Gaza. Upon his return, he was appointed dean of the Islamic University and became the leader of Hamas’ student movement.
In 1997, Haniyeh was appointed to head the office of Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, and his elevated position put him on the radar of the Israel Defense Forces. In 2003, following a suicide bombing on a bus in Jerusalem, the Israeli Air Force attempted to assassinate Haniyeh, Yassin, and bombmaker Mohammad Deif for having planned the attack; all three, however, escaped unscathed.
In December 2005, Haniyeh was elected to head the Hamas political list in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. After Hamas won the election in January 2006, Haniyeh was nominated as prime minister on February 16, 2006, and was sworn in on March 29, 2006. Over the following year, Hamas broke with Fatah, the other main Palestinian faction, and Haniyeh was eventually dismissed from his position by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007. Haniyeh, however, continued to operate a government in Gaza.
Haniyeh was the leader of Hamas from 2006 until February 2017, when Yahya Sinwar replaced him. On May 6, 2017, Haniyeh was elected chairman of Hamas’s Political Bureau, replacing Khaled Meshaal; at the time, Haniyeh relocated from Gaza to Qatar to avoid being targeted by Israel in Gaza.
Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said that “much like many Russian elites, senior Hamas officials often live in luxury, while the average Gazan faces dire living conditions.”
The U.S. State Department announced the designation of Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in January 2018. New sanctions were announced following the October 7, 2023, massacre carried out by Hamas.
“One of the things that stands out from Treasury’s designations is that they all operate under the command of the Hamas political leadership, including Haniyeh,” said Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute. “All of the Treasury designations make clear they answer to the political bureau” that Haniyeh chairs.
Congress also began to express anger at Qatar for hosting Haniyeh and other members of Hamas. “The administration should tell the Qataris that these guys should be handed over by the U.S. or Israeli governments. They shouldn’t be able to stay there,” said Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), a House Financial Services subcommittee member on national security and illicit finance. “The Qataris ought to make a choice: What side are you on, the side of terrorists or the side of the Americans? That choice should be forced upon them.”
Before the war began, the Washington Post said the United States and Israel believed it was “preferable to have Hamas’s leaders somewhere they can be monitored rather than somewhere, such as Iran, where they can’t.”
As the Gaza War escalated, Qatar told the U.S. it might reconsider allowing Hamas a home in the country. In the short-run, however, its relationship as Haniyeh’s host and Hamas funder made the Qataris the key mediator in negotiations for the release of more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas on October 7.
Haniyeh is married and is reported to have 12 children.
Sources: “State Department Terrorist Designations of Ismail Haniyeh, Harakat al-Sabireen, Liwa al-Thawra, and Harakat Sawa’d Misr (HASM),” U.S. State Department, (January 31, 2018).
Humeyra Pamuk, “Qatar open to reconsidering Hamas presence in Qatar, US official says,” Reuters, (October 27, 2023).
Jeff Stein, “Far from war in Gaza, Hamas chief oversees vast financial network,” Washington Post, (November 2, 2023).