x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Meshaal bows out to give Hamas 'new blood'

Analysts say Hamas's de facto leader-in-exile has become disgruntled with the machinations of the group and its members, underscoring his failure to push through pragmatic reforms, including reconciliation with rivals Fatah.

JERUSALEM // Khaled Meshaal has to decided to step down as Hamas leader, reasoning that it is time for "new blood" to assume leadership roles, according to one of his confidants.

But analysts say that Hamas's de facto leader-in-exile has become disgruntled with the machinations of the Palestinian Islamist group and its members based in Gaza, which underscores his failure to push through pragmatic reforms, including reconciliation with rivals Fatah.

For months, speculation swirled over Mr Meshaal's future but, according to Hamas officials privy to his future plans, the longtime leader has reaffirmed that he will not stand for re-election to the group's Political Bureau.

The decision ends a drawn-out debate within Hamas that began in January when Mr Meshaal, who has been in the top job since 1996, revealed he would not run again.

He then appeared to backtrack after colleagues urged him to run for the position in the party's secret internal elections that have been taking place over recent months.

Mr Meshaal reverted to his original decision at a recent meeting of senior leaders in Cairo and his ally, Izzat Risheq, said on Monday that it was time for Hamas to introduce "new blood".

Talal Okal, an independent political analyst and writer who lives in the Gaza Strip, said Mr Meshaal's decision was born out of frustration with the Hamas leadership inside the coastal Palestinian enclave.

A steady shift in power from exiled leaders to those living in Gaza, which Hamas governs, has diminished Mr Meshaal's influence and complicated the changes he began engineering, such as seeking a pact with Fatah last year.

"He no longer has the power to make decisions in the group because leaders in Gaza are the ones who control things now," Mr Okal said.

He added that this was largely because Gaza leaders have become financially independent of exiled leaders since the group dismantled its headquarters in Damascus last year.

The agreement with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, provided a framework to unite the Fatah-run West Bank with Gaza under a caretaker government until Palestinians voted in national elections.

The territories have been divided between the bitter rivals since Hamas fighters forced Fatah out of Gaza in 2007. But the agreement faltered because of factional bickering, opposition from the United States and Israel, and resistance from hard-line Hamas leaders in Gaza.

Mr Meshaal, born in 1956 in the West Bank village of Silwad, has spent most of his time as a Hamas leader living in various Arab capitals, including Amman and Damascus, and his present home in Doha.

Some suggest Mr Meshaal has pan-Arab ambitions such as taking on a role with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The largely peaceful Arab Spring uprisings had convinced him that Hamas needed an image makeover, analysts say.

Mr Meshaal went so far to suggest recently that the Islamist group could abandon violence against Israel and tentatively accept Mr Abbas, who also chairs Fatah, entering peace negotiations with Tel Aviv.

But such changes now seem unlikely because "Mr Meshaal has failed in his political platform", Mr Okal said.

West Bank officials expressed concern that Mr Meshaal's departure all but cemented an end to Palestinian reconciliation.

"Khaled Meshaal just was tired of short-sighted people, particularly those in Gaza who don't see beyond Beit Hanoun and Rafah," said one Palestinian official in Ramallah.

Among the leading candidates to replace Mr Meshaal is his number two, Mussa Abu Marzuq, who also lives in exile. Others include the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismael Haniyeh, and another prominent Gaza figure, Mahmud Zahar.


* With additional reporting by the Associated Press

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