Palestinian Hamas group re-elects Khaled Meshaal as leader

The Palestinian Hamas group re-elected the relatively pragmatic Khaled Meshaal as its leader on Tuesday, despite past criticism of him by hard-liners in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

A diplomat in the region said Egypt and Qatar had lobbied strongly on behalf of a reluctant Meshaal before the vote in Cairo by about 60 Hamas leaders who had met through the night.

Born in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Meshaal, 56, has lived in exile for decades and, like his Hamas comrades, rejects Israel's right to exist. But he played a vital role in indirect, Egyptian-mediated talks between Israel and Hamas to secure a truce that ended an eight-day Gaza war four months ago.

And Meshaal drew criticism last year from Hamas's Gaza-based leadership over what some officials saw as a personal initiative to heal a rift with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose rival Fatah party lost control of the Israeli-blockaded enclave in 2007.

In a terse statement, a Hamas official said only that Meshaal had been re-elected in the Cairo meeting. The diplomat in the region, who asked not to be identified, said Egypt's leadership and the wealthy Gulf emirate of Qatar had backed Meshaal, who had earlier promised to step down.

“They saw Meshaal as a moderate and an example of a leader who saw the world more comprehensively than other [Gaza-based] hard-liners in the group,” said the diplomat. Meshaal left Damascus, where Hamas had a headquarters, about a year ago after the Sunni movement broke with President Bashar al-Assad over Syria's civil war.

In December, Meshaal traveled from Egypt to make his first visit to Gaza, where he told a rally he would never recognize Israel and pledged to “free the land of Palestine inch by inch.”

Once treated as a pariah by many US-allied Arab leaders, Hamas has seen its standing in the region rise on the back of Arab uprisings that have ushered in more sympathetic conservative governments in Egypt and elsewhere.