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Buoyed by 'Islamic Spring,' Hamas considers new direction

Hamas' political chief Khaled Meshal is stepping down as the militant Palestinian group faces a regional moment of change.

By Correspondent / January 22, 2012

Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal, who is stepping down.

Hussein Malla/AP/File

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Hebron, West Bank

Hamas’ political chief is stepping down after nearly 16 years, leaving the militant Palestinian group with a potential leadership battle just as Islamist allies elsewhere in the Middle East are enjoying momentum from election victories.

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Khaled Meshal, who headed Hamas’ headquarters in Damascus, recently informed the group’s leadership council that he won’t stand for reelection, said a Hamas spokesperson in Gaza. It is unclear exactly why Mr. Meshal is choosing to step aside and who is likely to succeed him.

Recent upheaval in the Middle East has been a mixed bag for Hamas. On the one hand, it has empowered groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which controls nearly half of the new parliament, prompting Hamas leaders to boast about an "Islamic Spring" and emboldening backers in the West Bank. But the very same regional changes have cast it adrift from its headquarters in Syria and prompted Meshal to suggest non-militarized confrontation with Israel, to the chagrin of some in the movement.

The outcome of the Hamas leadership change could impact relations with Israel and the US, which consider it a terrorist group, and the rest of the international community.

"It is important to see whether this vacuum will be filled by the moderates or a hawk, because this will affect the future of Hamas and Palestinian politics," says Mohammed Dejani, a political science professor at Al Quds University who believes the Muslim Brotherhood victory will force Hamas to mellow.

Islamic Spring misread?

"People are misreading the Islamic movements in Egypt and Tunis. It is an Islamic Spring, but it's not an Islamic Spring Hamas thinks about. There has been a religious revival, but in a sense of moderation and not in a sense of religious fundamentalism."

Meshal was once considered more of a hard-liner compared to Hamas’ leaders in the Gaza Strip. However, talk of a shift away from military action and accepting a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have made him look like a pragmatist. He has also been spearheading efforts toward reconciliation with President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, which support talks with Israel and reject military confrontation.

He had ample reason for the apparent shift. In recent months Hamas started moving staff and families out of Damascus because of the fighting in Syria. Observers believe that Hamas is seeking to open a headquarters in Egypt, and wants to signal that it has the potential to recast itself as more moderate. 

Speculation about Mr. Meshal’s departure ranged from losing a power struggle with rivals from the Gaza Strip to a desire to go along with regional trends toward democracy and regime change.

That said, few expect that Hamas’ evolution will be as far reaching as recognizing Israel and approving peace talks. That would risk making the organization look like President Abbas’ Fatah party, which is faulted by Palestinians for failing to win independence though negotiations.

Hard-liners astonished

Even with the current signs of change, Hamas risks alienating its foot soldiers in the Gaza Strip with conciliatory moves. Meshal raised eyebrows with his comments on non-militarized grassroots resistance in a December interview with The Associated Press in which he said that grassroots "popular" protests have the "power of a tsunami."

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