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Hamas reelects longtime leader to another four years

Mashaal is key in attempt to break political isolation

CAIRO — Hamas on Monday reelected longtime leader Khaled Mashaal, capping a year of secret internal elections, officials in the Islamic militant group said.

The Qatar-based Mashaal, 56, is a veteran politician with close ties to regional powers Qatar, Egypt, and Turkey. He has been key to Hamas’s attempts to break out of its political isolation after its violent takeover of Gaza in 2007.

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Mashaal’s reelection could revive stalled reconciliation efforts between Hamas and political rival Mahmoud Abbas, the Western-backed Palestinian president.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza left Abbas with only parts of the West Bank, and the rival camps have become increasingly entrenched in their respective territories since 2007.

Two Hamas officials said Mashaal ran unopposed and was reelected by a majority in the movement’s Shura Council, which is believed to have about 60 members. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the secret procedure.

Hamas began holding internal elections a year ago, a secretive process spread over several countries, shrouded in mystery, and beset by logistics problems.

Hamas has four components — activists in Gaza, in the West Bank, in exile, and those imprisoned by Israel. Each of the four groups chooses local leaders as well as delegates to the Shura Council. This council selects a decision-making political bureau and the head of that body — the stage that was wrapped up in Cairo on Monday.

The Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip have made a series of moves aimed at enforcing an Islamic lifestyle there.

On Monday, they issued a new education law requiring a more rigid separation of sexes in Gaza schools.

The new rules call for the segregation of boys and girls from the age of 9, and prohibit male staff members from working at girls’ schools. They also prohibit exchange programs with Israelis.

Mashaal, 56, became head of the Hamas movement in 1996 and will now lead it for another four years.

He is seen as a member of the more pragmatic wing of Hamas, in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He and others in Hamas insist the movement will not recognize Israel and renounce violence — Western conditions for dealing with Hamas.

He has suggested he could accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel, though he has not said if such a state would end the conflict, or only be an interim step to an Islamic state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.

Mashaal has also come out in support of so-called popular resistance against Israeli occupation, a term Palestinians used for marches and stone-throwing protests. In the past, Hamas gunmen and suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks.

Mashaal pushed for reconciliation with Abbas in his previous term, but was blocked by Hamas hard-liners in Gaza who fear a unity deal will give Abbas a new foothold in Gaza and weaken Hamas’s grip on the territory.

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