Hamas supreme leader to step down amid turmoil
Khaled Mashaal, the politburo chief of Hamas, at a meeting in Rabat, Morocco, on July 14, 2012. / GettyImages
(AP) GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The supreme leader of the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas has decided to step down, clearing the way for the movement to choose a new head for the first time in more than 15 years, two senior officials said Monday.
Khaled Mashaal told a recent meeting in Cairo of Hamas' leadership that he would not run in upcoming elections for the top position, said Izzat Risheq, a confidant of Mashaal who attended the gathering. Moussa Abu Marzouk, Mashaal's deputy, also confirmed the decision.
Mashaal will remain in his post until a new leader is chosen, most likely by the end of the year.
Hamas officials said the leadership change would not affect its confrontational approach to Israel. The group's founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and its leaders have staunchly rejected Palestinian peace efforts with Israel.
It may however impact the balance between exiles like Mashaal, who tended to favor reconciliation with other Palestinian groups, and influential members from the group's Gaza Strip stronghold who are more reluctant to give up their grip on power.
Mashaal's announcement comes at a turbulent time for Hamas. Officials said Mashaal was motivated by a number of factors, including the Arab Spring protests jolting the region and the simmering struggle between Gaza and the exiles.Israeli defense chief proposes West Bank pullout
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Mashaal has led Hamas since 1996, helping to build the movement into a potent force. Under his leadership, Hamas carried out numerous suicide bombings and other attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. He also survived an Israeli assassination attack in 1997. The group has been branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the EU.
Forging an alliance with Iran and Syria, where the group has maintained its headquarters, it also has become an important regional political player. The group swept Palestinian legislative elections in 2006.
After a short-lived attempt at sharing power with President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement, Hamas overran the Gaza Strip in 2007. Hamas continues to rule Gaza, while Abbas governs in the West Bank. The two factions have been unable to reconcile.
Risheq said Mashaal told the recent leadership meeting that given the changes sweeping the region, it is time for him to step down and make way for "new blood."
But other Hamas officials say there have been differences between Mashaal and the influential Gaza leadership over key policy issues, particularly in the area of Palestinian reconciliation. Gaza leaders believe Mashaal was too willing to make concessions in attempts to reconcile with Abbas.
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