By SARAH EL DEEB and KARIN LAUB
FILE – In this this Aug. 29, 2009 file photo, Khaled Mashaal, Hamas leader, center, attends his father’s funeral at a Mosque in Amman, Jordan. Senior Hamas figures gathered for the last stage of internal elections on Monday in Cairo, where two officials in the Islamic militant movement said a new leader may be announced later in the day. Qatar-based Mashaal, who has run the Palestinian movement since 1996, is seen as the front-runner. Mashaal, 56, is backed by regional powers Qatar, Turkey and Egypt. (AP Photo/Nader Daoud, File)
CAIRO (AP) — The Islamic militant group Hamas on Monday re-elected longtime leader Khaled Mashaal, officials said, choosing a relative pragmatist who has sparred with movement hardliners in the past over his attempt to reconcile with Western-backed Palestinian rivals.
The secretive Hamas did not issue an announcement, but Mashaal’s re-election was confirmed by two Hamas officials. The vote late Monday capped a year of internal elections spread over several countries and shrouded in mystery.
The Qatar-based Mashaal, 56, has led Hamas since 1996 and won another four-year term. He ran unopposed and won the support of a majority in Hamas’ Shura Council which has about 60 members, said the two Hamas officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss the secret election with reporters.
Mashaal enjoys the backing of regional powers Turkey, Egypt and Qatar, countries where Hamas’ parent movement, the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, is influential.
It’s not clear if his re-election will give him enough clout to pursue reconciliation or if hardliners, particularly those based in the Gaza Strip, will be able to veto a deal.
Hamas wrested Gaza from Mahmoud Abbas, the internationally backed Palestinian president, in 2007, leaving him with only parts of the West Bank. Since then, the rivals have established separate governments that have become increasingly entrenched in their respective territories.
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’ Fatah movement. Hamas leaders in Gaza were particularly vehement in their objections, apparently fearing that a unity deal would give Abbas a new foothold in Gaza and weaken Hamas’ grip on the territory.
Last week, the emir of Qatar proposed holding a reconciliation conference in Egypt in coming weeks to set up a timetable for forming the interim government and holding elections.
Mashaal’s re-election could further distance Hamas from long-time patron Iran, which has supplied cash and weapons to the Hamas government in Gaza. Hamas broke with another long-time ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, more than a year ago, over Assad’s brutal crackdown on a popular revolt that turned into an armed insurgency.
Mashaal’s relations with Iran cooled after he refused to back Assad, an Iranian ally, and Mashaal last visited Tehran in November 2011.
Other senior Hamas figures continue to visit Tehran and ties have not broken off, but Mashaal has found a new home in Qatar, one of Iran’s regional rivals.
Hamas was founded in Gaza in 1987, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. It has four components — activists in Gaza, in the West Bank, in exile and those imprisoned by Israel. In the internal elections, each of the four groups chose 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. Details about the composition of the political bureau were not available Monday.
Mashaal 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.
Mashaal has suggested he could accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, though he has not said if such a state would end the conflict, or 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 use for marches and stone-throwing protests. In previous rounds of conflict, Hamas gunmen and suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks.
Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank.