Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal confirmed on Sunday that he would be stepping down as the head of the Islamist extremist group. He said he would be staying away, “at least temporarily,” but intimated that he may return to the movement’s leadership one day.
Mashaal made the comments during an interview with the Arabic daily al-Quds al-Arabi alongside his speech at a conference of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara. Mashaal was the official guest of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who formally secured his position as leader of the Islamist-rooted party at the gathering.
In the interview with al-Quds al-Arabi, Mashaal cited a desire to temporarily recuse himself from the Hamas leadership, where he has been the official chairman of the Hamas political bureau or leader of the movement “in exile.” Last week, reports suggested a difference of opinion between himself and the Gaza-based Hamas leaders as the reason for his stepping down.
Mashaal claimed that he enjoys “a great deal of support” among Hamas leaders in the strip and downplayed reported strains between himself and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, calling the rumors “inaccurate.”
He said Hamas was “strong and solid” and predicted it would become “stronger and tougher.”
Mashaal also used the opportunity to criticize the Egyptian leadership for closing Gaza’s smuggling tunnels, noting that the underground tunnels help bring goods and necessities to residents of the strip who are under siege due to Israel’s blockade. He said Egypt’s clamp down had caused shortages of many goods, notably fuel.
The Hamas chief said it was the desperate economic conditions in Gaza that had sparked the use of smuggling tunnels — there was “no alternative.” He said the Gaza leadership would use “official channels” to bring in goods, like medicine and building materials, if it were allowed to.
Mashaal received a standing ovation for his address at the conference of the Justice and Development Party in Ankara.
In his speech, he promised continued “resistance” against Israel, saying it was the only road to achieving a Palestinian state. He said all other international attempts to “pressure Israel” had failed.
“We are committed to liberating our land and taking back Jerusalem, dismantling the settlements and bringing back refugees, freeing the prisoners jailed by the Zionist occupier and establishing a real Palestinian state, with true sovereignty in spite of the enemy,” he said.
Mashaal has been a leader of Hamas since 1996, and served as its main figurehead since the assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, one of the movement’s co-founders, in 2004. Part of the Hamas leadership in exile, Mashaal was based in Damascus from 2001 to 2012, when the Syrian uprising caused the group’s leadership to relocate to Qatar.
Hamas, a terror group that avowedly seeks the destruction of Israel, led a campaign of suicide bombings against the Jewish state, especially in the second intifada from late 2000. It grabbed power in Gaza in 2007 in a violent takeover from Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, having won more seats that Fatah in Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year. Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah faction have been engaged in awkward, on-off unity talks in recent years.
The tension between the Gaza and foreign-based leadership of Hamas has been a contentious issue in the past. Analysts say the foreign-based leadership was more ideological and hard-lined while the local leaders tended to be more moderate in recent years.
A report last week in the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat said Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’s current deputy leader-in-exile, is set to take over the leadership from Mashaal, who has not sought reelection in polling that has been under way for the past five months. Haniyeh is another candidate, the paper said.
In February, Arab affairs commentator Ehud Yaari wrote in The Times of Israel that Hamas was deeply divided over Mashaal’s leadership, and struggling to adjust to Arab Spring-prompted changes in the Middle East.
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