Hamas’s former chief in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, has been elected to lead the Palestinian terror group, succeeding Khaled Mashaal, the organization announced Saturday.
Mashaal, who lives in exile in Qatar, has completed the maximum two terms in office. He became the leader of Hamas in 2004 following the Israeli assassinations of Hamas founders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi.
“The Hamas Shura Council on Saturday elected Ismail Haniyeh as head of the movement’s political bureau,” the group’s official website announced.
Hamas rules the Gaza Strip while the Palestinian Authority, dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party, controls the West Bank.
Haniyeh is expected to remain in the Gaza Strip, though this may make it harder for him to manage the group’s international ties abroad, as traveling in and out of the Strip is difficult.
Haniyeh had long been seen as the leading candidate, with others in the running including Mashaal deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk and senior figure Muhammas Nazal.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the group hoped Haniyeh’s election “would see opening to the region.”
The 54-year-old takes charge of Hamas as it seeks to ease its international isolation. On Monday the group issued a new program that accepts the notion of a Palestinian state in territories captured by Israel in the Six Day War of 1967 while still calling for the destruction of Israel.
The program, which does not replace Hamas’s founding charter, rejects the establishment of the State of Israel as “illegal,” asserting a Palestinian claim to the entire land of Israel, and a so-called right of return for all descendants of refugees. It also reserves the right to wage “resistance and jihad for the liberation of Palestine.”
Israel has dismissed the new document as an attempt to “fool the world” into believing Hamas has softened its stance.
Haniyeh was elected Palestinian prime minister in March 2006 following general elections which saw major gains for Hamas. He was dismissed in June 2007 by Abbas after the Hamas coup in Gaza. He has continued to act as Gaza’s de facto political leader ever since.
Mashaal, 60, has led the Hamas political bureau since 1996. He is a veteran with close ties to regional powers Qatar, Egypt and Turkey. He has been key to Hamas’s attempts to break out of political isolation following its violent takeover of Gaza.
AP contributed to this report.