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Khalid Mashal: The man who skated Palestinian resistance towards Islamist violence

Mashal in his Kerala message said, “We should be making all efforts for the Palestine land. These activities are meant to regain the Al-Aqsa Mosque. We should make all possible efforts. Together we will defeat Zionists and we will stand united for Gaza."

Life of senior Hamas leader Khaled Mashal whose virtual address at a protest rally in Kerala that is alleged to have triggered blasts in Christian evangelical prayer sites sketches a picture of mutation — of a man who turned secular Palestinian resistance into Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Islamism. His address at Kerala rally has reason in this background – the organiser of the rally Solidarity Movement is a youth wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, the ideological brother of Brotherhood in the Indian Subcontinent.

Born into occupied Palestine in 1956 and having been exiled along with his entire family to live as refugees in the Six Day War of 1967, Mashal joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 1971 while still a student in Kuwait. It might seem surprising given the curbs on student activism in monarchies-ruled Arab countries, but Mashal was groomed into Islamist-violence and activism in Kuwait University in 1970’s.

His father Abd al-Qadir Mashal had participated in the 1936–1939 Arab revolt and was a religious figure who was appointed an imam in a Kuwait mosque, besides given some land for farming.

The Mashal family has lived mostly outside Palestine since 1967.

Khaled Mashal, like most of Brotherhood and Jamaat cadres, was unlike traditional and conservative religious figures – he was university-educated and armed with belief in Islam’s liberating and political role. For such figures, politics and religion run side by side.

While studying physics at Kuwait University, he founded a student group called the List of the Islamic Right. It was during his student days that he toured Palestine and Israel for two months on study-related travel. A profile on him says that the trip was pivotal. “The trip deepened his feelings for his homeland and his sense of the losses in 1948 and 1967.”

Those aware of the functioning of the Brotherhood and Jamaat know that like many communist parties, they don’t keep their cadres without work. They are given responsibilities of myriad sorts – be it running a charity, advocacy groups, think tanks, publishing a magazine or journals, preparing literature of the group, or simply doing dawah (propagation) work. (One of the three wings of Hamas is Dawah).

Mashal too spent his early post-university days in 1980’s organising seminars, lectures, protests, publishing pamphlets to mobilise Arab, Muslim and world opinion in favour of the Palestinian cause.

In 1983, the Palestinian Islamic movement convened an internal, closed conference in an Arab state, which included delegates from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Palestinian refugees from Arab states. The conference laid the foundation stone for the creation of Hamas.

Mashal was part of the project’s leadership.

When Hamas was founded in 1987, Mashal was still living in Kuwait. He became very active with the organisation, eventually leading its Kuwaiti chapter.

When Saddam Hussain’s Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Mashal and other Hamas leaders were asked to leave Kuwait and they sought refuge in Jordan. King Hussain, despite carrying the wounds of 1970’s PLO revolt, allowed them to open an office, which his son King Abdullah closed and expelled Mashal and other Hamas cadres.

In 1990’s Hamas adopted a structure very similar to those of Communist Parties. They established a politburo and Mashal was appointed its chief. It was the main decision-making body of the outfit. It still is.

In the early 2000’s and beyond, Mashal first moved to Qatar and then to Damascus, where he lived for years without his family.

Meanwhile, an attempt on his life, which he survived, brought him to limelight and made him a recognised name in Arab streets. It took place when he was living in Jordan in the 1990’s. In this episode, Israeli intelligence agency Mossad’s operatives broke into the building (in 1997) where he was sleeping and injected poison into his ear. King Hussein was outraged by the incident and saved his life by demanding that Israel provide an antidote, which was done.

In 2004 when Israeli forces killed Hamas’  founder Shaykh Ahmed Yasin, Mashal succeeded him as chief of the organisation.

In 2006, as Israel freed Gaza of occupation, Hamas fought Palestinian elections and won. Mashal was the chief of the organisation and shepherded the group from Damascus. However, the Mideast Quartet (US, UK, Russia and EU) urged the group to disarm. Mashal refused.

But as Hamas consolidated, a bloody  power struggle broke out among Palestinian ranks–between Mahmoud Abbas-led Fatah and Hamas in 2007. Consequently, Hamas emerged victorious and dominant in Gaza. Israel re-imposed the blockade and wars of 2008, 2014 and 2021 ensued. Hamas nevertheless survived and became all the more entrenched.

In 2011, Mashal successfully negotiated the release of 1027 Palestinian prisoners for Gilad Shalid, an Israeli soldier captured during a skirmish.

The onset of the Arab Spring was both a blessing and a curse for the Palestinian cause. While Arabs were rising to dethrone their autocratic rulers and thus making way for more pro-Palestine future governments, the chaos could prove to be disastrous for Arab unity. Groups like ISIS (Daesh) emerged in Iraq and Syria, forcing Hamas leadership to withdraw from the public. Damascus asked Mashal and his inner circle to leave as there was widespread anger in the government set-up against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni groups fighting the Bashar Al-Assad government.

Hamas remains a hardcore Sunni group, and as mentioned earlier, groomed in the functioning of the Muslim Brotherhood which is ideologically opposed to autocratic and dynasty-based rule.

Mashal came to Qatar where Qataris, considered being the sole Arab monarchy actively sympathetic to the Brotherhood, hosted Hamas leadership with Turks who under Erdogan were seeking to expand Ankara’s regional influence and establish President Erdogan as the “caliph of the Muslim world”. After the October 7 terror strikes and its aftermath, another chapter of turmoil has opened up in the Middle East, whose outcomes are impossible to predict.