Hamas has secretly chosen new leaders for Gaza, starting movement-wide elections that could determine if the Islamic militants will moderate or maintain an alliance with longtime patron Iran instead, Hamas officials said Thursday.
The secretive Hamas did not announce the Gaza election results, but several members said that among those chosen were previously sidelined pragmatists, younger activists and a pair of prisoners recently released by Israel.
"Hamas (in Gaza) will be more realistic, more moderate after the election," said a senior Hamas member, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid censure from his colleagues. Others said the new faces don't necessarily mean a change in direction.
Hamas traditionally keeps much of its leadership structure secret to avoid exposing it to attacks by Israel, which killed several top Hamas officials in the past.
The Gaza elections are the first of a series of secret ballots the movement is holding in coming weeks to choose a supreme leader.
That position has been held since the 1990s by Khaled Mashaal, who in recent months has tried to steer Hamas away from Iran and closer to the movement's ideological roots in the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim movement, has risen to power in several parts of the region as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings of the past year. The Brotherhood has urged Hamas to moderate and turn away from Shiite Muslim Iran, which backed Hamas at the height of the movement's international isolation following its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
The militant Islamist group is listed as a terror organization by the U.S., EU and Israel.
Along with the ideological shift, Mashaal has pushed for a unity deal with Hamas' main rival, West Bank-based Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Mashaal's perceived concessions to Abbas _ including an agreement to let him lead an interim unity government ahead of general elections _ have angered Hamas leaders in Gaza, some of whom appear unwilling to give up control there.
Azzam al-Ahmed, a top aide to Abbas, said unity talks are on hold until Hamas chooses its new leader.
Hamas consists of four branches _ Gaza; the Israeli-controlled West Bank, where it operates underground; Israeli prisons where thousands of Hamas members are held; and exile where most of the top leadership is based.
In elections held every four years, each of the branches chooses delegates to an overall leadership body, called the Shura Council, which consists of several dozen members. The Shura Council selects a decision-making political bureau and a supreme leader.
In elections in Gaza earlier this week, Hamas members selected a new local leadership and delegates to the Shura Council. By next month, the other three branches are to complete their selection, to be followed by the election of the supreme leader, Hamas officials said.
A senior Hamas official in Gaza, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because of secrecy rules, said a majority of newly elected Shura Council delegates from Gaza support Mashaal, despite disagreements over his unity deal with Abbas.
Support from Gaza could increase Mashaal's chance to win re-election.
In Gaza, several Hamas members said that the territory's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, was chosen head of the Gaza branch of the movement. Hamas denied this, saying it tries to keep the government and the movement separate.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.