Former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been elected to head the Islamist group’s foreign political bureau, a signal that the movement will shift some of its focus to foreign policy.
Hamas made the announcement of Meshaal’s election on Monday.
Meshaal, 64, lives in exile in Qatar. He was head of the movement’s political bureau for close to 25 years and was able to build many important relationships with regional and international personalities. He met former US President Jimmy Carter in 2008, raising the profiles of both Hamas and Meshaal.
Meshaal survived an assassination attempt in Amman in 1997, when Israeli Mossad agents posing as Canadian tourists injected him with a mysterious poison. Jordan arrested two of the attackers, creating a diplomatic crisis with Israel. The country’s leader at the time, King Hussein, demanded Israel hand over an antidote if it wanted its agents back, and Israel complied.
Hamas has widespread support in its home base, the Gaza Strip, which it wrested away from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah forces in a bloody takeover in 2007. The group has considerable support among Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Middle East.
The creation of this new position has to do with the capabilities that Khaled Meshaal may offer to Hamas during the next phase
Dr. Mukhaimer Abu Saada, head of the department of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City, told The Media Line that Meshaal has not left the political scene.
“Even during the past four years, during which Ismail Haniyeh was head of the political bureau of Hamas, he was involved in some capacity,” Abu Saada said of Meshaal.
Meshaal accumulated massive experience in the time he spent as head of the organization, Abu Saada says.
“The creation of this new position has to do with the capabilities that Khaled Meshaal may offer to Hamas during the next phase,” he added.
During Meshaal’s tenure as head of the organization, Hamas’ relationship with its ally, Syria, where the movement’s leadership was headquartered, ended because of Hamas support of the Syrian opposition.
Consequently, its ties with Hizbullah and Iran, Damascus’ staunchest supporters, cooled off.
“Syria and Iran consider Khaled Meshaal the reason behind Hamas’ exit from Syria in 2012, which led to the deterioration of relations with the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis. Haniyeh and the Qassam leaders are more acceptable to the Axis than Meshaal,” Abu Saada says. Qassam refers to the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas.
Talal Okel, a Gaza-based Palestinian analyst, told The Media Line that “Meshaal still enjoys extensive relationships inside Hamas, and outside it.”
He does not think that the new appointment will cause tension between Haniyeh and Meshaal.
“The two are on the same page on many issues and viewed as the more pragmatic figures within the group,” Okel said.
Islamist movements throughout the Middle East, including Hamas, were targeted after the coup in Egypt in 2013 that overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and brought President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power.
And Hamas lost financial and moral support as its ties with Gulf states worsened.
By virtue of Khaled Meshaal’s political realism, he can better market the Hamas movement to the Arab and Islamic world
Abu Saada says that Meshaal’s return to the group’s political arena can be explained in two ways.
“The first is that Hamas has a leadership in Gaza and a secret leadership in the occupied West Bank. They have decided that they should have a leadership abroad that works with the head of the movement,” he said.
In addition, he says, Meshaal’s role is “complementary” to that of Haniyeh.
“During his [Haniyeh’s] rule, Hamas’ relationship with the outside world did not witness a breakthrough, especially with the international community. Even its relationship with some Arab and Islamic countries deteriorated in the past four years, especially with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Abu Saada said.
Okel says that Hamas is not run by one person; its bylaws demand that “decisions within the movement are taken collectively, not individually.”
Meshaal is considered one of the founders of the movement and one of its stars, and when he was the head of the movement’s political bureau, he achieved some successes; his return means that the movement is re-focusing on foreign policy.
“Hamas has suffered several political blows in the past 10 years, which in the opinion of many have weakened the movement. He [Meshaal] will try to patch things up with Saudi Arabia and repair rifts with some regional countries,” Okel said.
Meshaal’s appointment comes ahead of legislative elections set for May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31, the first Palestinian elections in 15 years.
Abu Saada says Meshaal’s experience and political pragmatism should help Hamas.
“The movement decided to run in the Palestinian elections, and this makes it part of government. By virtue of Khaled Meshaal’s political realism, he can better market the Hamas movement to the Arab and Islamic world,” he said.
Hamas opposed Palestinian-Israeli peace accords signed in the 1990s and is regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the West. Hamas leaders say their fight against Israel is “legitimate resistance.”