2012 was something of a coming out party for Khaled Meshaal, the longtime leader of Palestinian paramilitary group and political party Hamas, as he finally emerged from exile to return, triumphant, to his homeland.
Born in Ramallah in 1958, Meshaal left with his family as a boy; since taking on a leadership role with Hamas, founded in 1987, his public persona has been necessarily limited out of concerns for his safety. An assassination plot ordered by Israeli P.M. Bibi Netanyahu nearly succeeded in the late ‘90s when Mossad agents injected Meshaal with poison, but Israel was compelled to supply the life-saving antidote after Jordan’s King Hussein threatened to upend their peace treaty (and held the agents hostage).
Meshaal remains a lightning rod for the Israeli right and the West, as any leader of a terrorist-designated group would. But his tone has shifted ever so slightly in recent months to one of reconciliation and moderation, with his visit to Gaza interpreted by many as a sign of potential reunification with Fatah, the rival, more moderate Palestinian political power that rules his boyhood home.
Israel also seems to recognize that Meshaal’s leadership from outside Palestine – he was based in Damascus until the Syrian rebellion erupted – might be less extreme in tone and substance than that of hardline militants living in contested territory. As he told CNN in November, “We are ready to resort to a peaceful way, purely peaceful way without blood and weapons, as long as we obtain our Palestinian demands.”
He’s indicated a willingness to engage in a long-term truce with Israel in exchange for right-of-return for Palestinian exiles, though Israeli existential fears about demographics in their own country make that unlikely.
Meshaal, it should be noted, has not exactly left extremism behind. He said during the boisterous speech in Gaza that he intends to recover Jerusalem “inch by inch,” and that Palestine “is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land.” He rejected Israel’s legitimacy, and suggested violent, military means weren’t exactly off the table.
But make no mistake: the Egypt-brokered truce between Hamas and Israel to end their recent violent conflict requires that Netanyahu, once again his country’s premier, negotiate indirectly with his enemy Meshaal. The Hamas leader’s return to Gaza was seen as a celebration of victory in that sense, with Meshaal living free from the threat of assassination for the first time in decades. He’s a political player on the rise, no longer hiding in the shadows, and with Hamas’ popularity higher than it’s been in years — 39 percent support in Gaza, and 33 percent in the West Bank — his potential to shape peace negotiations (or upend them) is unrivaled.