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In Arafat's Footsteps? Gauging The Ambitions Of Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal

Meshaal in a file photo
Meshaal in a file photo
Benjamin Barthe

PARIS - Everyone was expecting Mahmoud Abbas. Serious rumors claimed that, given his success at the UN, the president of the Palestinian Authority would head for Gaza, where he hasn’t set foot since 2007, when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in a coup.

In the end, the surprise came from Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s exiled political leader. On December 7, after entering from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, Israel’s former public enemy No. 1 – who escaped an assassination attempt from the Israeli secret service agency Mossad in 1997 – stepped in the Palestinian enclave for the first time in his life.

Officially, Khaled Meshaal only came to attend the 25th anniversary of Hamas, founded in Dec. 1987 – shortly after the beginning of the first Intifada. Tens of thousands of Palestinians turned out last Saturday in Gaza city to celebrate the anniversary. A giant replica of the type of rockets Hamas launched last month towards Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv was displayed in Gaza’s main square.

On Sunday, Meshaal flew to Doha, Qatar, his new headquarters since he split with Bashar al-Assad and had to leave Syria.

In Gaza, the political meaning of Meshaal’s whirlwind visit was no secret. He recently received hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar, as well as the support of Egypt, whose mediation with Israel led to a ceasefire after eight days of devastating bombings. The Hamas leader was in Gaza to show that he is a force to be reckoned with.

“This is Meshaal’s moment," says Omar Chaaban, the director of a Gaza think tank. "He is here to show that he is the leader of the Islamic movement outside but also inside the country, and that he has what it takes to lead the Palestinian cause.”

Walking around among the crowd, hugging every political leader and public figure in Gaza, the Silwad-born man -- a West Bank village that he left in 1967 at age 11 for Kuwait with his parents – hopes to further his stance, which is more and more divergent from the Hamas doctrine.

He is defending a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and while he doesn’t explicitly recognize the state of Israel, he accepts negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas. He also advocates reconciliation with the rival Fatah movement, which governs the autonomous parts of the West Bank.

His positions create dissensions within the party but have gotten the attention of Western and Arab countries, even if they are still boycotting what they continue to consider a terrorist movement.

Following Arafat’s footsteps

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t oppose Meshaal’s public appearance in Gaza, whereas he had earlier told Egypt that Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah was persona non grata. Netanyahu, surprisingly enough, was the man who ordered Mossad to assassinate Meshaal in 1997, during his first term as Prime Minister. The whole operation turned out to be a fiasco, but earned Meshaal his now slightly dated status of public enemy number one.

Meshaal is following Yasser Arafat’s footsteps," says political scientist Mehdi Abdel Hadi. "He is slowly shifting away from his movement’s original doctrine in order to earn an international stature.” This evolution was boosted by the Arab spring, explains International Crisis Group analyst Robert Blecher: “Many Hamas officials thought that now that Islamists were in charge, the balance of powers was shifting in their direction and that all they needed to do was wait and see. Meshaal thought the opposite – that they needed to insert themselves in the new regional order even if it meant making a few concessions. Egypt’s key role in the Gaza conflict validated his approach.”

In such a promising context, will Meshaal turn down a new mandate as Hamas' political leader? He has recently said that he would not stand for reelection as head of the movement, which he’s been leading since 1996. The vote has been postponed many times but may occur at the end of the year in complete secrecy, as is customary within Hamas.

Whatever happens," says Gaza based analyst Azmi Kichaoui, "Khaled Meshaal will stay in the Palestinian political landscape. Hamas is getting more popular by the day. In the middle term, it will probably become Fatah’s successor. This is how History goes. When Mahmoud Abbas gives up his position, all eyes will turn to Khaled Meshaal.”

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Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin

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