- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2012

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal has decided not to seek another term, the movement said Saturday, paving the way for a possible leadership contest at a time when the anti-Israeli Islamic group faces far-reaching decisions on whether to stay the course of militancy or moderate.

However, Hamas suggested Mashaal could be asked to stay on, in what would be a boost for his more pragmatic line.

Mashaal could not be reached for comment Saturday, but his decision not to seek another term as head of Hamas‘ political bureau was confirmed in a Hamas statement. Mashaal, who like other top Hamas leaders is based in Syria, has led the 15-member bureau since 1996, or nearly twice as long as permitted under Hamas rules.

Hamas said Saturday the final decision on Mashaal’s future will be left to the 55-member Shura Council, which oversees the political bureau and authorizes key decisions. Mashaal was last reaffirmed in his post in April 2009, and it is not clear if and when the Shura Council would appoint a successor.

Word of Mashaal’s decision comes at a time of change in Hamas‘ relationship with its parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has scored election victories in Egypt and Tunisia following the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring over the past year, and has urged Hamas to moderate.

Brotherhood leaders have encouraged Mashaal to pursue reconciliation with Palestinian rival Fatah, led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and to abandon violence, according to several Hamas figures.

In discussions within Hamas, Mashaal has praised the pragmatism of the Brotherhood and proposed that Hamas take steps toward becoming a strictly political movement, rather than also maintaining a parallel military wing. This would eventually require a decision to halt attacks on Israel, something Hamas has so far avoided.

In recent months, Mashaal has led attempts to reconcile with Fatah, although he has encountered some opposition from senior Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamists since they seized the territory from Abbas in 2007. The Gaza branch of Hamas would likely lose jobs and influence in any reconciliation deal.

Mashaal is to meet with Abbas in Cairo early next month to try to move bumpy reconciliation efforts forward. The rivals had previously agreed to hold general elections in the Palestinian territories in late spring, but smaller gestures, such as mutual prisoner releases, have not yet been carried out, suggesting continued distrust.

Some in Fatah expressed concern Saturday that a Hamas leadership change could put reconciliation on hold.

Mashaal had a significant role in pursuing reconciliation,” said Amin Maqboul, a Fatah negotiator in the talks with Hamas. “We hope that his successor takes the same path, particularly … since there are some forces in Hamas in Gaza who are not interested in reconciliation.”

Raed Naerat, a West Bank-based Hamas expert, said he expects the movement to stay on Mashaal’s current course, arguing that his policies have been endorsed by the collective leadership.

Mashaal first told the Hamas leadership at a Shura Council meeting in Sudan last month that he does not plan to seek re-election, according to Hamas insiders who spoke on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

It is unclear whether Mashaal is serious about stepping aside, or hopes to elicit a show of support from the movement by announcing he is not seeking re-election. Under Hamas‘ internal rules, the head of the political bureau can only serve two terms for a total of eight years, and Mashaal faced severe criticism in the past for staying on past that.

Some said the Arab Spring may be influencing Mashaal’s strategy.

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