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“With this step, Mashaal wanted to emphasize that Hamas is a democratic movement, but the final decision will be made by the Shura Council,” said Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas figure in Gaza who spoke to Mashaal earlier in the week.

It’s not clear if and when Hamas elections would be held. Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Lebanon, said the date of possible internal elections would not be revealed, citing security reasons.

Possible contenders for Hamas‘ leadership include Mashaal’s deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza.

In recent months, Mashaal has increasingly adopted a pragmatic tone, though Hamas insists it will not formally renounce violence or recognize Israel — conditions set by the international community for ending its boycott of the group. In its founding charter, the movement is committed to Israel’s destruction and has killed hundreds of Israelis in militant attacks that have included shootings and suicide bombings. Since 2007, the group has ruled the Gaza Strip, a sliver of territory wedged between Egypt’s Sinai desert and Israel.

In a December interview with The Associated Press, Mashaal said he wanted to focus on a strategy of holding mass protests against Israel, in the style of Egypt and Tunisia, where citizens successfully overthrew their dictatorships. However, he did not renounce violence.

Hamas leaders in Gaza tend to adopt a harder line, although they have mostly observed a truce with Israel for the past three years. Palestinian militants from other groups have fired rockets at Israel with varying intensity recently, but it has not escalated into larger violence.

Hamas considers all of Israel to be occupied Palestinian land. The Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, seeks a state alongside Israel in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

Mashaal is originally from the West Bank Palestinian village of Silwad. He survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997 in Jordan.

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Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed reporting.