Hamas confirmed the reelection of longtime leader Khaled Mashaal in a statement Tuesday, capping a year of secret internal elections.
The group said the election came after voting by leaders from Gaza, in the West Bank, in exile and those in Israeli jails and was reported on Monday.
Qatar-based Mashaal, 56, is a veteran politician with close ties to regional powers Qatar, Egypt and Turkey. He has been key to Hamas’s attempts to break out of its political isolation following its violent takeover of Gaza in 2007.
Two Hamas officials said Mashaal ran unopposed and was reelected by a majority in the movement’s Shura Council on Monday, the group’s decision-making body, which is believed to have about 60 members. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret procedure.
The decision to reelect Mashaal was met with thunderous applause in the council, according to sources cited by the Palestinian Ma’an news agency.
The Islamist extremist Hamas began holding internal elections a year ago, a secretive process spread over several countries, shrouded in mystery and beset by logistics problems.
Hamas has four components — activists in Gaza, in the West Bank, in exile and those imprisoned by Israel. Each of the four groups chooses local leaders as well as delegates to the Shura Council. This council selects a decision-making political bureau and the head of that body — the stage that was wrapped up in Cairo on Monday.
Mashaal became head of the movement in 1996 and will now lead it for another four years.
He is seen as a member of the more pragmatic wing of Hamas, in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He and others in Hamas insist the movement will not recognize Israel and renounce violence — Western conditions for dealing with Hamas.
He has suggested he could accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, though he has not said if such a state would end the conflict, or only be an interim step to an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.
Mashaal has also come out in support of so-called popular resistance against Israeli occupation, a term Palestinians used for marches and stone-throwing protests.
Hamas gunmen and suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israelis in terrorist attacks.
Mashaal’s reelection could revive stalled reconciliation efforts between Hamas and political rival Mahmoud Abbas, the Western-backed Palestinian Authority president. The Hamas takeover of Gaza left Abbas with only parts of the West Bank, and the rival camps have become increasingly entrenched in their respective territories since 2007.
Mashaal pushed for reconciliation with Abbas in his previous term, but was blocked by Hamas hardliners in Gaza who fear a unity deal will give Abbas a new foothold in Gaza and weaken Hamas’s grip on the territory.
Last year, Mashaal and Abbas, who have cordial relations, reached a deal whereby Abbas would head an interim government of technocrats in the West Bank and Gaza. This government would have paved the way for general elections.
However, the deal never got off the ground because of opposition from Hamas leaders in Gaza and senior figures in Abbas’s Fatah movement.
Last week, the emir of Qatar proposed holding a reconciliation conference in Egypt in the coming weeks to set up a timetable for forming the interim government and holding elections.
The election of Hamas’s highest political position had been postponed numerous times since last April amid rumors that regional players were pressuring Mashaal to stay on for another term, despite his wish to retire.
On Sunday, sources told Turkey’s Anadolu news agency that the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian regime, Qatar and Turkey all wanted to see Mashaal remain in office given “the complicated and dangerous situation the movement faces.”
Other candidates mentioned ahead of the vote included Mashaal’s Cairo-based deputy Moussa Abu-Marzouq, as well as Haniyeh.
In January 2012, Hamas shuttered its political headquarters in Damascus. The movement’s leaders have been dispersed throughout the Middle East ever since.