GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Hamas' leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, is not seeking re-election, a Hamas official said Sunday.
Senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil told Ma'an that Mashaal will remain in the Islamist movement but has decided not to run for re-election as party chief.
"When Mashaal said he was not seeking re-election, a message was sent to him from the movement’s leaders unanimously asking him to change his mind," Bardawil said.
Serious discussions are ongoing within Hamas about a successor to Mashaal, Ma'an learned from sources close to the movement.
The only potential candidates would be current prime minister Ismail Haniyeh or deputy head of Hamas politburo Mousa Abu Marzouq, based in Cairo. The sources said that Abu Marzouq is likely to be the preferred choice.
Over the past five months, Hamas, which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, has been quietly holding a leadership ballot among activists in the territory, the occupied West Bank, Israeli prisons and in Arab and other foreign countries.
Mashaal, who has led Hamas since 1996 from various Arab capitals, told a meeting of its senior officials in Cairo last week that he had no desire to remain its chief and his decision not to run in the election was final, said a source close to Hamas.
Earlier this year, Mashaal angered Hamas's Gaza-based leadership by agreeing that its main rival, the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, could lead any future unity government.
Mashaal has also voiced what critics in Hamas saw as approval for Abbas's now-stalled talks with Israel, saying in 2011 that 20 years after a 1991 international Middle East conference, Palestinians were willing to give peace another chance.
"Mashaal has grown impatient with some of his Gaza officials who recently tried to undermine decisions he took on behalf of the group," said a diplomatic source in the region.
The politburo chief is more savvy about world politics and more pragmatic than Hamas leaders who have lived only in the Gaza Strip, teh source said.
Hamas has repeatedly denied any internal rift.
The diplomatic source said Mashaal was likely to come under pressure from within Hamas and from some Arab countries to agree to stand as a candidate before a final vote, whose date remains secret.
The location of a new Hamas chief could be key to winning votes. Hamas activists have traditionally preferred leaders in exile, in venues seen as offering better personal security than in the Gaza Strip which Israeli drones overfly frequently.Reuters contributed to this report