GAZA, Palestine: Long considered a radical, Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal has gradually shifted position to an implicit acceptance of the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“This is my third birth,” he said as his made his first ever visit to Gaza Friday, counting his escape from an Israeli attempt on his life in Jordan in 1997 as his second.
Aged 56, imposing but affable, the 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 that 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 Sept. 25, 1997, agents of 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.
Meshaal 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.
That was Meshaal’s base when in 2004 he was propelled to the movement’s leadership after Israel assassinated first Yassin and then his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantissi in the Gaza Strip.
After Hamas won a landslide victory in a January 2006 Palestinian general election, the West mounted a boycott of the movement.
Bickering with the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas culminated in the formation of a unity government in 2007 but that collapsed in 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 in April 2011, 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 long rejected by Hamas whose stated aim is the destruction of the Jewish state.
And in November 2011, 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.
Meanwhile, the Hamas leadership has distanced itself from Syria over its suppression of a 21-month uprising, quietly quitting Damascus.
“In this house, in Gaza,” Meshaal said at Yassin’s home, “the Hamas leadership ... promises to walk down the route of reconciliation.”
Earlier this year, Meshaal announced he would not run for another term as Hamas politburo chief.