Khaled Meshaal, man who embodies Hamas shift

GAZA CITY, Selim Saheb Ettaba- Long considered a radical, Khaled Meshaal represents a shift of his Islamist movement Hamas from armed struggle to support for "peaceful resistance" against Israel.
Meshaal, who has decided not to run again this summer for the leadership of Hamas amid signs of strains within the movement, gained international fame following a failed assassination attempt by Israel in Jordan in 1997.
Aged 55, imposing but affable, this former physics teacher with salt-and-pepper hair and large dark eyes was born in Silwad, near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

It is there he spent his childhood before going into exile with his family to Kuwait, following the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when the Jewish state seized the West Bank.
As a student at Kuwait University, Meshaal became involved in religious activism and in 1987 was a founding member of Hamas, which stemmed from Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood movement.
He left Kuwait for Jordan, which borders the West Bank, in 1990, and six years later became head of the Hamas political bureau.
On September 25, 1997, agents from Israel's Mossad secret service disguised as Canadian tourists bungled an attempt to assassinate him on a street in Amman by injecting him with poison.
Three of the attackers took refuge at the Israeli embassy, but two were captured by Jordanian authorities.
He fell into a coma and a furious King Hussein demanded Israel hand over the antidote if it wanted the captured agents to be freed.
The episode compelled then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- re-elected in 2009 -- to release Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin and 19 others from prison.
Following a falling-out with Jordan, the Hamas political bureau was forced to leave Amman for Damascus in 1999.
This is where Meshaal was in 2004 when he was propelled to head the movement after Israel assassinated Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantissi in the Gaza Strip.
After Hamas swept to power in Palestinian legislative polls in January 2006, the West mounted a boycott of the movement.
Rows and armed clashes with the Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas led to the formation of a unity government in 2007 but that collapsed in bloody street fighting in Gaza only months later.
Hamas militants seized control of Gaza, routing forces loyal to Abbas and undermining the power of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas members hunted down in the West Bank in retaliation.
A brilliant orator, Meshaal uses the freedom of movement that is denied to Hamas leaders in Gaza to criss-cross the Arab and Muslim world.
In an interview with AFP last April 15, Abbas accused Meshaal and the exiled Hamas leadership based in Syria of attempting to foil Palestinian reconciliation under Iran's influence.
But less than two weeks later, Mussa Abu Marzuk -- Meshaal's right-hand man and a member of the exiled leadership -- signed a reconciliation agreement with Fatah in Cairo.
Meshaal has since issued multiple conciliatory statements.
In May, he even said he was willing to "give a chance" to negotiations with Israel, a notion rejected by Hamas whose stated aim is the destruction of the Jewish state.
And last November, he came out in favour of "peaceful popular resistance" as the path to building a Palestinian state alongside Israel, without giving up the armed struggle, after a two-hour meeting with Abbas.

Sunday, January 22nd 2012
Selim Saheb Ettaba

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