Friday, December 07, 2012

Exiled Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal Visits Gaza

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal visits Gaza for first time

The recent Palestinian-Israeli cease-fire prompts the political chief to make a victory lap through the Gaza Strip — as well as talk that he may not step down as planned.

By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
4:01 PM PST, December 7, 2012

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal set foot in the Gaza Strip for the first time Friday, emerging from the Egyptian border with his hand over his heart and telling jubilant supporters that his visit marked a new era in the pursuit of Palestinian independence.

Though Meshaal has led the Islamist militant group since 2004, traveling to its Gaza-based home was unthinkable just a month ago because of fear that Israel might assassinate him as it did his two predecessors.

But the Nov. 21 cease-fire agreement that ended an eight-day clash with Israel emboldened Meshaal to make a victory lap through the seaside territory, culminating Saturday with an outdoor celebration to mark the group's 25th anniversary.

"I say I'm returning to Gaza even though I have never been before because it's always been in my heart," he told the crowd, fighting back tears.

The visit underscores Hamas' rising political clout in a Middle East reshaped by the "Arab Spring." But it also has many wondering how the militant group will use its newfound prominence, and what role Meshaal will play.

Meshaal, a West Bank native who spent most of his life as a refugee or in exile, was expected to step down as head of the political bureau in coming months, after secret Hamas elections to select a new leader.

Meshaal leads a more moderate, pragmatic Hamas faction against a rival group of Gaza-based hard-liners. He has said he no longer wants the job.

Yet on the heels of the recent clash with Israel, some predict that Meshaal, 56, will want to remain at the helm at such a crucial time.

During his visit, he looked and talked more like someone running for office than someone getting ready to fade away.

"This is just the beginning," Meshaal said, adding that his visit to Gaza felt like a rebirth. "Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah, Jerusalem and then Haifa and Jaffa." He was referring to, in order, the West Bank city that hosts the Palestinian Authority headquarters, the city both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and two Israeli cities with large Arab populations.

Some in Hamas' leadership are lobbying for him to stay.

"He's unique, with a good political mind and support from all the factions," said Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad. "I wish he'd continue."

The next Hamas leader will play a significant role in determining the intensity of the conflict with Israel as well as the possible reconciliation with Fatah, Hamas' rival Palestinian party in the West Bank.

Meshaal, who recently left the chaos in Syria for the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, is a leading proponent of ending the division with the secular Fatah, and says he would accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, which some view as de facto recognition of Israel.

And though he refuses to give up armed resistance, he supports signing a long-term cease-fire agreement. At one point during his visit Friday, members of the crowd passed him a rifle, expecting him to hold it over his head in a sign of military triumph. He shook his head and brushed it aside.

Meshaal is facing a challenge from hard-liners, such as Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and senior official Mahmoud Zahar, who are skeptical of reconciliation with Fatah and say armed resistance is the only path to ending the Israeli occupation. Over the last year, Zahar and Meshaal have clashed openly about the future direction of Hamas.

"We should not be speaking about just one person," Zahar said Friday when asked about Meshaal's future during the welcoming ceremony. "This is a symbolic victory for all Hamas leaders and Islamic Jihad leaders. It shows Israel that we control our land."

Though some Western diplomats hope Meshaal will moderate the group's behavior, Israelis dismiss Hamas' internal power struggles as irrelevant. They note that the group, which Israel and the U.S. label a terrorist organization, refuses to renounce violence, recognize Israel or accept past peace accords.

"Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," said Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Others say the outcome of the Hamas election, which has been underway for months, will be key. For one thing, Palestinian reconciliation may hinge on it.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, said Wednesday that reconciliation talks in Egypt were likely to be suspended until Hamas chooses its new leader.

In Gaza, Meshaal gets mixed reviews. As a former Muslim Brotherhood member, he is seen as a strong envoy to Egypt's new government. He also has held the purse strings for funds from Iran and, more recently, Qatar.

On Friday, he was greeted like a king. Flag-draped streets were lined by masked, armed Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade fighters. A giant plastic rocket, labeled "Made in Gaza," was set up on the stage where Meshaal will be greeted at Saturday's celebration.

During a visit to the grieving family of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, assassinated by Israel last month during the conflict, Meshaal was nearly knocked to the ground by a throng of people trying to shake his hand.

Yet his popularity in Gaza has never been as strong as it is among Hamas members in the West Bank and diaspora. Though he is admired by Palestinians for narrowly escaping assassination in 1997, when Israel tried to poison him in Jordan, Meshaal is seen by some here as an outsider because of his long periods in exile.

Polls show that Haniyeh, who has been angling for nearly a year to replace Meshaal as head of the political bureau, is more popular among Gazans.

"People in Gaza like Haniyeh," said Rafat Battah, a border guard who watched the welcoming ceremony with three small children dressed in camouflage and carrying plastic guns. "He spends a lot of time with the people. We can trust him."

7 December 2012
Last updated at 08:38 ET

Profile: Khaled Meshaal of Hamas

Khaled Meshaal survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997

Khaled Meshaal has been a key figure at the top of the leadership of the Palestinian militant group Hamas for many years, although his role and influence have been both shifting and imprecise.

Born in the West Bank village of Silwad in 1956, Mr Meshaal moved to Kuwait after the 1967 Middle East war, then later Jordan, where his involvement with Hamas began.

He left Kuwait for Jordan after Iraq invaded the emirate in 1990.

Mr Meshaal became Hamas's political leader in exile in 2004, when its founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was assassinated by Israel.

Unaffected by Israeli travel restrictions, he has been able to represent Hamas at meetings with foreign governments and other parties throughout the world.

Over the past year though tensions over strategy between Hamas's leaders in exile and those in Gaza - the group's stronghold - have emerged, and Mr Meshaal has indicated he will not stand for re-election.

His first ever visit to Gaza this week- ostensibly to mark Hamas's 25th anniversary - will be closely watched for signs on the future direction of the group's leadership.

The trip follows November's eight-day conflict with Israel that left some 170 Palestinians - mostly civilians - and six Israelis dead. Mr Meshaal called the conflict a victory over the Jewish state.

Unity talks

Two of the key issues facing Hamas are whether to adopt a more pragmatic approach towards Israel - Hamas's charter calls for Israel's destruction - and attempts at reconciliation with Fatah.

In 2011, Mr Meshaal and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas - the Fatah leader -endorsed an Egyptian plan to reconcile the rival factions.

Although attempts to forge a Palestinian government of national unity have since stalled, some observers believe Mr Meshaal could emerge as a candidate to head such an administration.

Mr Meshaal this year strongly supported Mr Abbas's move in upgrading Palestinian status at the United Nations to that of a non-member "observer state".

He has said a long-term truce with Israel might be possible if Israel accepted conditions, including a withdrawal to 1949 ceasefire lines, but has rejected peace talks.


Hamas is officially regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the EU and US.

Its political leaders in exile, Mr Meshaal included, have therefore had a transitory life.

He was in Jordan in 1997, in charge of international fundraising at the Hamas bureau in Amman, when Israeli agents tried to assassinate him with poison. King Hussein demanded an antidote to the poison from Israel.

Jordan closed the bureau in the late 1990s and briefly jailed Mr Meshaal before expelling him to Qatar.

Mr Meshaal then headed to Syria, where he became political leader in exile.

Syria welcomed the group, providing its leaders with a safe haven, and helping to supply it with weapons and money for the armed struggle against Israel, with which Syria is still technically at war.

But in February 2012, Mr Meshaal and the rest of the political leadership in exile moved from Syria to Egypt and Qatar.

The move followed a declaration of support for the Syrian people in their uprising against President Bashar al-Assad by the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya.

Analysts said the Sunni Islamist Hamas was torn between risking the support of its main financial backers - Syria and its ally, Iran - and supporting Syria's majority Sunni community, which has borne the brunt of the crackdown by the Alawite-dominated security forces.

No comments: