Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal has decided not to seek another term, the movement said Saturday, paving the way for a possible leadership contest at a time when the anti-Israeli Islamic group faces far-reaching decisions on whether to stay the course of militancy or moderate.
However, Hamas suggested Mashaal could be asked to stay on, in what would be a boost for his more pragmatic line.
Mashaal could not be reached for comment Saturday, but his decision not to seek another term as head of Hamas' political bureau was confirmed in a Hamas statement. Mashaal, who like other top Hamas leaders is based in Syria, has led the 15-member bureau since 1996, or nearly twice as long as permitted under Hamas rules.
Hamas said Saturday the final decision on Mashaal's future will be left to the 55-member Shura Council, which oversees the political bureau and authorizes key decisions. Mashaal was last reaffirmed in his post in April 2009, and it is not clear if and when the Shura Council would appoint a successor.
Word of Mashaal's decision comes at a time of change in Hamas' relationship with its parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has scored election victories in Egypt and Tunisia following the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring over the past year, and has urged Hamas to moderate.
Brotherhood leaders have encouraged Mashaal to pursue reconciliation with Palestinian rival Fatah, led by Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and to abandon violence, according to several Hamas figures.
In discussions within Hamas, Mashaal has praised the pragmatism of the Brotherhood and proposed that Hamas take steps toward becoming a strictly political movement, rather than also maintaining a parallel military wing. This would eventually require a decision to halt attacks on Israel, something Hamas has so far avoided.
In recent months, Mashaal has led attempts to reconcile with Fatah, although he has encountered some opposition from senior Hamas activists in the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamists since they seized the territory from Abbas in 2007. The Gaza branch of Hamas would likely lose jobs and influence in any reconciliation deal.
Mashaal is to meet with Abbas in Cairo early next month to try to move bumpy reconciliation efforts forward. The rivals had previously agreed to hold general elections in the Palestinian territories in late spring, but smaller gestures, such as mutual prisoner releases, have not yet been carried out, suggesting continued distrust.
Some in Fatah expressed concern Saturday that a Hamas leadership change could put reconciliation on hold.
"Mashaal had a significant role in pursuing reconciliation," said Amin Maqboul, a Fatah negotiator in the talks with Hamas. "We hope that his successor takes the same path, particularly ... since there are some forces in Hamas in Gaza who are not interested in reconciliation."
Raed Naerat, a West Bank-based Hamas expert, said he expects the movement to stay on Mashaal's current course, arguing that his policies have been endorsed by the collective leadership.
Mashaal first told the Hamas leadership at a Shura Council meeting in Sudan last month that he does not plan to seek re-election, according to Hamas insiders who spoke on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
It is unclear whether Mashaal is serious about stepping aside, or hopes to elicit a show of support from the movement by announcing he is not seeking re-election. Under Hamas' internal rules, the head of the political bureau can only serve two terms for a total of eight years, and Mashaal faced severe criticism in the past for staying on past that.
Some said the Arab Spring may be influencing Mashaal's strategy.
"With this step, Mashaal wanted to emphasize that Hamas is a democratic movement, but the final decision will be made by the Shura Council," said Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas figure in Gaza who spoke to Mashaal earlier in the week.
It's not clear if and when Hamas elections would be held. Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official in Lebanon, said the date of possible internal elections would not be revealed, citing security reasons.
Possible contenders for Hamas' leadership include Mashaal's deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, and Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza.
In recent months, Mashaal has increasingly adopted a pragmatic tone, though Hamas insists it will not formally renounce violence or recognize Israel _ conditions set by the international community for ending its boycott of the group. In its founding charter, the movement is committed to Israel's destruction and has killed hundreds of Israelis in militant attacks that have included shootings and suicide bombings. Since 2007, the group has ruled the Gaza Strip, a sliver of territory wedged between Egypt's Sinai desert and Israel.
In a December interview with The Associated Press, Mashaal said he wanted to focus on a strategy of holding mass protests against Israel, in the style of Egypt and Tunisia, where citizens successfully overthrew their dictatorships. However, he did not renounce violence.
Hamas leaders in Gaza tend to adopt a harder line, although they have mostly observed a truce with Israel for the past three years. Palestinian militants from other groups have fired rockets at Israel with varying intensity recently, but it has not escalated into larger violence.
Hamas considers all of Israel to be occupied Palestinian land. The Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, seeks a state alongside Israel in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.
Mashaal is originally from the West Bank Palestinian village of Silwad. He survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997 in Jordan.
Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writers Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed reporting.