REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- Khaled Meshal, who has served as leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas since 2004, plans to step down as political chief of the Gaza Strip-based organization, according to a statement from the group Saturday.
The possible departure of Meshal, who has been criticized in recent years by more radical elements inside Hamas for becoming too moderate, is the latest sign of strife inside the Islamist group, which Israel and the U.S. accuse of supporting terrorism.
A shakeup might also deal a blow to Palestinian reconciliation efforts since Meshal, 55, was seen as a chief supporter of efforts to form a unity government with rival Palestinian movement Fatah, which is based in the West Bank.
But it remains unclear when, or if, Meshal will step down. Hamas officials declined to say why Meshal was leaving and the brief statement did not specify when a new election might be conducted. Hamas is led by the Shura Council, whose procedures and even its members are shrouded in secrecy.
Meshal himself declined to comment.
Some analysts suggested that Meshal might be threatening to step down as a tactic to reestablish his authority in the face of a leadership challenge from Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who has signaled that he would be interested in replacing Meshal. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for example, has frequently threatened to quit, only to change his mind after being urged by supporters to remain.
On Saturday, some Hamas leaders were doing exactly that, asking Meshal to reconsider his decision and remain as head of the group.
The leadership struggle is symptom of the growing identity crisis inside Hamas.
After seizing control of Gaza after a bloody clash with Fatah in 2007, Hamas has struggled to find a balance between its roots as a resistance army that used suicide bombers against Israel and its latest role as a Gaza-based government seeking international acceptance after winning Palestinian elections in 2006.
Its popularity in Gaza has fallen amid unemployment, international isolation and a devastating 22-day conflict with Israel in early 2009 that killed 1,400 Palestinians.
Though Hamas has continued to reject international calls that it renounce violence and recognize Israel, Meshal in recent years set the group on a more moderate path, saying he would accept a long-term cease-fire with Israel and a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.
Since 2009, Hamas has largely halted its own rocket fire into Israel and publicly urged other militant groups in Gaza to do the same, though smaller groups continue to fire mortars and rockets into southern Israel.
Some in Gaza have accused Hamas, under Meshal’s leadership, of abandoning its pledge to continue armed resistance against Israel. Recently, Meshal announced that the group would focus on nonviolent popular protests, such as those that have brought down governments in Egypt and Tunisia.
But Meshal, who spent most of his time in exile in Syria before the recent violence there, is facing opposition from Hamas leaders who stayed in Gaza, such as Haniyeh. In a move largely seen as an attempt to boost his leadership credentials, Haniyeh recently took his first official trip outside of Gaza in years, visiting Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey.
Another potential candidate to replace Meshal is deputy politburo chief Mousa Abu Marzouq.
Meshal took over as head of the Hamas politiburo after the 2004 assassination by Israel of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi. But fearing for his life, Meshal kept a low profile in Damascus.
In 1997, Israel tried to poison Meshal during a visit to Jordan. But the assassination attempt was exposed, and the U.S. and Jordan pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving in his first administration, to provide the antidote to save Meshal’s life.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: Meshal in December. Credit: Ashraf Shazly /AFP/Getty Images