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Khaled Meshaal, leader of Hamas, announces plans to step down

Meshaal will switch to a symbolic role after 16 years at the top of the Islamic resistance movement.

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Exiled Palestinian Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal addresses a meeting in Cairo with some 40 Palestinian prisoners who were freed by Israel but were to be deported overseas in October. (-/AFP/Getty Images)

Khaled Meshaal has announced that he will not seek reelection as chairman of the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, the organization announced in a statement today, according to The Associated Press .

Exiled in Damascus, Meshaal has been at the helm of Hamas for 16 years and has been its political leader since 2004 when Israel assassinated its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and its leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, in an air strike.

Though a date for a new election has not been set, the news opened Hamas to a leadership struggle, according to the AP, as Meshaal commands respect and has no obvious replacement. The organization is facing internal uncertainties as well, as some push for the organization to be more moderate and others believe it should remain militant.

More from GlobalPost: Hamas: Shifting alliances in the Arab Spring?

Citing a report in the Italian-language agency Adnkronos News, The Jerusalem Post said today that Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh has begun campaigning to succeed Meshaal as head of the movements politburo.

Other leading candidates could be Meshaal’s number two, Mussa Abu Marzuq, and Mahmoud Zahar, a prominent Hamas figure, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Supported by Iran, the group continues to be based in Syria despite the continuing, violent repression of a popular uprising there.

In a statement carried by the AP, Hamas urged Meshaal to reconsider his decision:

The movement urges [Mashaal] to reconsider and to leave this issue to the Shura Council, with full respect to his wishes, considering this is a public matter that the Hamas institutions should decide, and not an individual person.

The Shura Council is the top-level body in Hamas that elects its leadership.

Since 2006, Hamas has governed the Arab enclave, a tiny piece of land caught between Egypt and Israel. It is a rival of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority and a bitter foe of the political party Fatah .

Meshaal survived a 1997 assassination attempt by Israel, according to the Reuters news agency. The late King Hussein of Jordan demanded that Israel supply the antidote to poison administered by Israeli spies.

More from GlobalPost: Is Hamas pulling out of Syria?

Both the United States and European Union consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization and the group has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings, car bombings and rocket attacks, on Israel and on Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, according to CNN.

Though supported financially and otherwise by the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Hamas members are now distancing themselves from the government in Damascus, leaving the Syrian capital or declining to visit, according to CNN.
 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/israel-and-palestine/120121/khaled-meshaal-leader-hamas-announces-