A founder of Hamas in the Gaza Strip died Friday of a stroke after decades as an influential yet little-known figure at the helm of the Palestinian militant organization. He was 76.
Muhammad Hassan Shama, revered by Hamas loyalists but nearly anonymous outside Gaza, was one of the eight founders of the Islamist group in the 1980s. After his death, Hamas publicly announced Friday for the first time that Shama had been the leader of the secretive Shura Council, its top governing body.
The identity of the council's members is a closely guarded secret because of fears they could be targeted by Israel. The founder and first leader of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 2004.
Hamas is committed to Israel's destruction and has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings and rocket attacks. In 2007, Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from its Palestinian rivals in the Western-backed Fatah movement, and has formed an alliance with Iran.
The two Palestinian groups recently signed a reconciliation agreement that is supposed to lead to the formation of a joint government, though little has changed so far.
On Friday, Hamas released a statement mourning Shama's death. Shama died, the group said, "after a long journey of jihad that he spent, along with Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in teaching, educating and promoting the noble cause of Islam and jihad."
Shama was born in 1935 in the city of Ashkelon, now in Israel, according to the Hamas statement. He became a refugee, along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, in the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.
He was arrested and jailed repeatedly by Israel. In 1992, he was among some 400 Hamas men whom Israel expelled to south Lebanon. They were later allowed back under international pressure.
Shama's funeral was set to be held at Gaza's biggest mosque after Friday prayers with the participation of top Hamas leaders, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.