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Meshaal decision to stand down sparks struggle for soul of Hamas

Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, has indicated that he will not stand for re-election this year. The decision leaves the way open for the movement to choose a new leader for the first time in nearly 16 years. Two senior officials said that Meshaal announced his decision at a recent meeting of Hamas's leadership in Cairo. He will remain in his post until a new leader is chosen.

So what does this decision mean for Hamas? The covert structure of the organisation means that it is not exactly clear what his role is or how much authority he wields over the hierarchy in Gaza, its main power base. In exile in Damascus for many years, Meshaal may be geographically removed from the day to day running of the government in Gaza, but he is unaffected by travel restrictions imposed by Israel on Hamas leaders in Palestine. This means he has been able to represent the group internationally, meeting with foreign leaders and other parties.

Hamas – branded a "terrorist" organisation by Israel, the US and the EU – is defined by its confrontational attitude to Israel, and this basic fact is unlikely to change. The group's founding charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and its leaders have opposed Palestinian dialogues with Israel. However, Meshaal's resignation may have an impact on the direction of Hamas in other ways. There is perceived tension between exiles, like Meshaal, who tend to support reconciliation with other Palestinian groups, and those within the Gaza Strip who want to retain their grip on power. It is notable that both leading candidates to replace Meshaal are from Gaza. They are Abu Marzouk, who headed up Hamas in the 1990s, until he was imprisoned in the US for two years, and Gaza's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Some in Gaza will be pleased at Meshaal's departure, as they see themselves as more hard-line and dedicated to the struggle with Israel than the exiled faction. Although Hamas carried out numerous suicide bomb and rocket attacks under his leadership, Meshaal said last year that Palestinians were willing to give peace another chance. His critics within the movement saw this as Hamas approval for Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas's talks with Israel (which have since stalled).

This "tension" between exiles and those in Gaza has been more pronounced after last year's Arab Spring. Hamas's allies, the Muslim Brotherhood, have gained ground in democratic elections, adopting a more moderate approach as they have assumed power. Some within Hamas have suggested that the movement should also consider renouncing violence and becoming more moderate. Indeed, upon his departure, Meshaal is expected to take up a role in the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood.

It has also been suggested that he could seek a role in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) which has long been dominated by Abbas's Fatah, bitter rivals of Hamas. The two parties briefly attempted to share power, but this ended in 2007 following a planned armed coup against the elected government led by a clique within Fatah. Hamas ended up with full control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah of the West Bank. In the event of reconciliation between the two factions – which has so far proved impossible – Meshaal could emerge as a unity candidate. While such reconciliation still looks distant, the battle for Hamas's future direction has already begun.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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