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Hamas' most influential leader, Khaled Mashaal, seen as key to conflict

DAMASCUS, Syria—With the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a dangerous deadlock, it's becoming clear that any breakthrough is likely to come not from Jerusalem, Ramallah or Gaza but from the Damascus headquarters of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal.

Diplomats, ambassadors and negotiators all meet in Syria with Mashaal, Hamas' political director, whose power and influence rival—if not surpass—those of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

Hamas operates with a network of decision-makers, but Mashaal sits at its center. Without his assent, nothing can happen on the two issues at the heart of the crisis: a deal to release Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured June 25 in a Hamas-led attack on a military compound outside the Gaza Strip, and an agreement on a Palestinian coalition government willing to recognize Israel in exchange for a resumption of vital outside funding.

"All critical decisions, big decisions, need his approval," said Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus bureau chief for the newspaper Al Hayat, who's covered Hamas for more than a decade. "I would say Hamas has, in a way, two heads, Mashaal and Haniyeh: Haniyeh as executive leader and Mashaal as political leader."

Mashaal's central role has brought not only respect but also a widening web of enemies.

In Israel, Mashaal has been called a terrorist and a tyrant. Israel tried to assassinate him in 1997 in Jordan, and still has him high on the hit list. And earlier this month Palestinian militants loyal to Abbas threatened to kill Mashaal for thwarting efforts to end the international isolation that's strangling the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

C. David Welch, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has described Mashaal as the "Hamas prime minister in exile," who's standing in the way of Middle East peace.

Mashaal and the Hamas leadership in Damascus take the threats seriously. The 50-year-old former physics teacher has no publicized office and travels under tight security with a large entourage of bodyguards.

Mashaal sees the criticism as an attempt to divide his movement as it tries to fight the international isolation that's threatening to bring down the seven-month-old Hamas-led Palestinian government.

"These are dubious motives which are believed only by those who promote such allegations," he told Hamidi, the Al Hayat journalist, this month in an extensive interview.

Under the Hamas structure, Mashaal can't dictate decisions. The movement has a secretive governing council of about 50 people around the world that sets policy. Leaders are splintered into those living in exile, those in prison and those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the power has shifted to Damascus.

Two years ago, Israel assassinated the group's most charismatic leaders in Gaza: founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

Fearing further attacks, Hamas refused to identify its new Gaza leaders publicly.

This summer, Israel resumed military operations in Gaza after Shalit was captured. It tried to assassinate top Hamas militants, bombed Palestinian government offices and arrested dozens of elected Hamas lawmakers, most of whom remain behind bars.

"We have most of the freedom to make the decisions and the others don't have that chance to move or to meet together," said Mousa Abu Marzouk, Mashaal's deputy in Damascus. "Even in Gaza, most of them—even in the government—they are hiding because Israel is targeting them."

Many analysts and Hamas critics say the power shift has strengthened the hand of hard-liners living in exile and weakened pragmatists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Last month, Hamas and negotiators with Abbas' Fatah party in the West Bank and Gaza Strip agreed to form a unity government that would have recognized Israel, at least implicitly. The outline of the deal was sent to Mashaal in Damascus, where the leadership there rejected the terms.

Emissaries from Egypt, Qatar and Gaza have come to Damascus to try to work out a compromise with Mashaal. Little has come of the efforts, and time may be running out.

Because of the deadlock, Abbas is considering dissolving the Hamas-led government and installing a caretaker Cabinet. Hamas leaders have warned that such a move could create a bloody feud and might be seen as a coup.

Mashaal also has rebuffed Israeli offers on the other major issue behind the crisis: a prisoner exchange to release Shalit. Israeli is demanding that Shalit be released before any Palestinian prisoners are freed. Mashaal says he doesn't trust the Israelis to honor their side of the bargain, and there's a disagreement over which Palestinians will be released.

Now the Israeli military campaign in Gaza is becoming more invasive and there are new threats of a full-scale invasion amid Israeli allegations that Hamas is smuggling in anti-tank rockets.

Mashaal's prominence on the Palestinian political stage was clear this month when he spoke to an overflow crowd at a Damascus convention hall.

The audience of 300 included Middle East ambassadors and Ahmed Jibril, the hard-line Palestinian militant who spearheaded a 1985 deal in which Israel agreed to release more than 1,100 prisoners in exchange for the remains of three of its soldiers.

Mashaal, in a 75-minute speech, criticized Arab leaders for turning their backs on the crisis, suggested that Hamas rivals were plotting a "black coup" to topple the Palestinian government and refused to recognize Israel.

"Hamas will not give up politics," Mashaal said as Jibril and the others drank tea and picked at trays of sweets. "We will not give away the national program, we will not recognize Israel and we will not give up the resistance."

Despite that rhetoric, some see subtle signs of change. A few days before that speech, Mashaal told Hamidi: "The Islamic movement (Hamas) accepts a state on 1967 borders," referring to the land that Israel occupied that year.

He stopped short of giving up on long-held Hamas policy seeking the creation of a Palestinian state in all of what's now Israel.

"There is a difference between an existing Zionist entity in reality and for me to give it legitimacy," he said. "Yes, there is an entity called Israel, but I am not ready to recognize it."

Although that doesn't meet the demands of the United States and other countries that Hamas recognize Israel, Hamidi said it was a significant shift for Mashaal to agree to a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.

"This is a big, big change," said Hamidi. "They never said it in the past as bluntly as they are saying it now. So there is a shift. They are making a very gradual and slow shift."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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