Gaza PM tops Hamas poll but Meshaal ‘still boss’

Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas government in Gaza has emerged in voting as the movement's leader there, but incumbent Khaled Meshaal is expected to retain his position as overall chief.

Voting in the coastal strip, which has been taking place over the past month, placed Haniyeh at the head of the Palestinian territory's 15-member political bureau ahead of Mahmoud Zahar, previously considered the main leader there, party officials said on Friday on condition of anonymity.

Joining them was Imad al-Alami, who served on the movement's political bureau at its headquarters in Syria, before leaving the violence-ridden country and returning to his Gaza home in February after an absence of 23 years.

Ahmad Jaabari and Marwan Issa, two militant leaders from Hamas's armed Ezzeddine al-Qassam Brigades, were also named to the Gaza bureau along with Yehia Sinwar and Rawhi Mushtaha, who were among 1,027 prisoners freed by Israel in October in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

The Gaza Strip is one of four constituencies taking part in secretive Hamas internal voting which is intended to conclude in mid-May with the naming of a central political bureau for the movement.

Ballots are also being cast in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and among Hamas members held in Israeli jails. Those outside the Palestinian territories are also being polled, officials say, adding that the only realistic prospects for head of the top political body are Meshaal and his deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk.

"We expect that competition for the presidency of the political bureau for the next four years is limited to Khaled Meshaal and Mussa Abu Marzuk, and the trend seems to be to retain (Meshaal)," a Hamas official told AFP.

Meshaal, who has been criticised by Hamas leaders in Gaza as too soft in his statements on armed resistance to Israeli occupation, has not thrown his hat into the ring as contender for another term in the Hamas top slot but his supporters believe they can co-opt him.

"Nobody declares himself a candidate," Abu Marzuk said last week in a rare interview with the American Jewish daily Forward. "You have to be presented by someone else."

Meshaal replaced Abu Marzuk as political bureau chief while the latter was jailed in the United States from 1995 to 1997 due to lawsuits for alleged militant activity which were finally dropped.

He stayed in the job after a botched assassination attempt by Israeli agents in Amman in 1997.

In 2004, the Gaza killing by Israel of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantisi propelled Meshaal to the head of the movement.

Meshaal is to travel to Cairo next week for talks with Egyptian officials on reconciliation with rival Palestinian movement Fatah, a senior Hamas official said on Thursday.

The official, Ismail Radwan, told AFP in Gaza City that Meshaal would be accompanied by a large delegation from the Gaza Strip and abroad.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, agreed last year to reconcile, signing a deal in Doha calling for the quick formation of a consensus government, which would pave the way for presidential and legislative polls by around May.

But the process has hit repeated roadblocks, with the formation of the interim government proving thorny.

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