GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal won't seek re-election, the group announced Saturday, paving the way for a leadership contest and possible struggle over the ideological direction of the Islamic militant group.
However, the wording of the Hamas announcement also left open the possibility that Mashaal would be asked to stay on even though he has led the movement since 1996, nearly twice as long as permitted under Hamas rules.
Mashaal himself could not be immediately reached for comment.
Word of Mashaal's decision comes at a time when Hamas faces far-reaching choices.
The Islamists' parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, has scored election victories in Egypt and Tunisia following the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring.
In discussions within Hamas, Mashaal has praised the pragmatism of the Muslim Brotherhood branches abroad and urged Hamas to take steps toward becoming a strictly political movement, rather than also maintaining a parallel military wing. This would eventually require halting attacks on Israel, a decision Hamas has so far avoided to face.
Mashaal, who along with other senior Hamas figures is based in the Syrian capital of Damascus for security reasons, has also pushed for reconciliation with Palestinian rival Fatah, headed by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
His reconciliation push has encountered some opposition from 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 first told the Hamas leadership last month that he does not plan to seek re-election as head of the political bureau, the movement's government-in-exile, according to Hamas insiders. They spoke on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Saturday's statement by Hamas said the final decision on Mashaal's future will be left to the movement's 55-member Shura Council, which oversees the political bureau and authorizes key decisions.
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 for up to 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.
"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 internal Hamas elections would be held, though late spring had been mentioned as a possible date. 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 has said it would not renounce violence or recognize Israel. 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 against him in 1997 in Jordan.
Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed reporting.