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Khaled Meshaal reelected as Hamas chief

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Veteran Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who was reelected on Monday, is well-respected in the Arab world and seen as the best choice to steer the Islamists through a Middle East in turmoil.

The reelection of the charismatic 56-year-old as the overall head of the Palestinian Islamist movement which rules the Gaza Strip, was widely seen as a shoo-in, with his new mandate confirmed by a vote in Cairo late on Monday.

"The leaders of Hamas chose Meshaal," the high-ranking official told AFP by phone, speaking on condition of anonymity after a late-night vote of the Shura Council which groups Hamas leaders from Gaza, the West Bank and overseas.

There had been some speculation that Meshaal, who is based in Qatar, would be forced aside by the movement's powerful leadership in Gaza, where it has been the ruling authority since 2007.

And Meshaal himself said last year he would not seek a new term.

But in the light of the regional turmoil sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the thinking shifted, and Meshaal came to be seen as best-placed to guide the Islamist movement through the rapidly changing environment because of his extensive contacts in the Arab world, another Hamas official said.

Developments since the Arab Spring "pushed Hamas to choose Meshaal... who has given the movement a national face... and has good relations in the Arab world," the official told AFP.

A brilliant orator, Meshaal has used the freedom of movement that is denied to Hamas leaders in Gaza to criss-cross the Arab and Muslim world, raising the profile of the Islamist movement which seized control of the coastal enclave from forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas six years ago.

Hamas sources said the Shura Council had decided to appoint two deputies who would work under Meshaal -- Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniya who would be responsible for issues within the Palestinian territories, and Mussa Abu Marzuq who would handle all external issues.

Had Meshaal not run for another term, Abu Marzuk, his long-term deputy, would have likely taken over as leader.

Meshaal, who was born in the West Bank but went into exile as a child, made his first-ever visit to Gaza in December where he received a hero's welcome as he attended the celebrations marking 25 years since the founding of Hamas.

He was propelled to the movement's leadership in 2004 after Israel assassinated Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantissi in two deadly strikes on Gaza.

He himself is no stranger to Israeli attempts on his life, surviving a bungled assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997 when agents of Israel's Mossad spy agency tried to poison him.

Meshaal, one of the founders of the Islamist movement, was for years based in Damascus but last year he relocated to Doha, severing ties with President Bashar al-Assad's regime which has been battling a major uprising since March 2011.

Hamas has been subjected to a Western boycott since it won a shock victory over the long-dominant Fatah movement in a 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election.

Nearly 18 months later, bitter infighting between the two movements escalated into bloody street battles in Gaza, which culminated in Hamas expelling Fatah loyalists and seizing control of the territory.

Efforts to reconcile the two factions took a step forward in April 2011 with the signing of a unity deal but the agreement has largely stalled.

Hamas officials in Cairo for the leadership vote were also holding talks with Egyptian mediators about the reconciliation efforts, officials said.

Haniya was also looking to "clear the air" following Egyptian allegations of Gazan involvement in a deadly attack on Egyptian soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula last year, Hamas sources said.

In the aftermath of the bloody August attack, Egyptian forces closed down dozens of smuggling tunnels on the Gaza border, raising tensions with Gaza's Hamas rulers whose territory has been subjected to an Israeli blockade since 2006.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130402/khaled-meshaal-reelected-hamas-chief