Hamas Leader Khaled Mashaal

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Karim Jaafar / AFP / Getty

Leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal.

Armored columns of Israeli troops rolled into Gaza on Jan. 3, ushering in the next phase in the country's effort to cripple Hamas. The ground offensive was a step Hamas's leader, Khaled Mashaal, had warned against. "If you commit the stupidity of launching a ground offensive then a black destiny awaits you," Mashaal cautioned during a speech televised on Al-Jazeera the previous night. Like Hamas itself — a group classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and E.U., but which provides much-needed social and welfare services to Palestinians — its exiled leader is a bit of a paradox. Mashaal, who has been based in Damascus since 1999, preaches a fiery brand of militancy but has indicated a willingness to accept the existence of a Jewish state (which Hamas's charter rejects) alongside a Palestinian one.

Fast Facts:

• Born in 1956 in the village of Silwad, near Ramallah in the West Bank

• In 1967, moved with his family to Kuwait, where he joined the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood

• While enrolled at Kuwait University, he founded a student group called the List of the Islamic Right. After graduating in 1978, he spent several years as a physics professor

• Joined Hamas after its founding in 1987 and rose to become the leader of its Kuwait chapter

• Married in 1981. He has seven children

• In 1990 Mashaal moved to Jordan, where he took the reins of a Hamas branch in Amman and worked to raise funds and strengthen relationships with neighboring governments. Israelis allege he was using his position to funnel money and supplies to militants for use in suicide bombings and other attacks

• In 1997, Mashaal narrowly survived a famous attempt on his life by Israeli Mossad agents. Posing as Canadian tourists, the agents smeared Mashaal's neck with a lethal poison. (Other accounts of the attack suggest Mossad injected the poison into his ear.) The would-be assassins were apprehended, and an outraged King Hussein brokered a deal: their release in exchange for the antidote, which saved Mashaal's life. The attack helped vault Mashaal toward the top of Hamas's leadership structure.

• Expelled from Jordan — where his office had been closed by the government — in 1999. Settled in Syria, where he remains in exile

• Became top dog at the organization's political bureau in 2004

Quotes by:

• "As long as we are under occupation, then resistance is our right."
- TIME, Jan. 29, 2006

• "The real Holocaust."
-Describing civilian attacks against Gaza, USA Today, March 1, 2008

• "Our goal is to end the occupation and not kill people. If the world was able to be fair with us and give us back our land and rights, we won't need any more fighting and resistance."
-BBC, April 19, 2004

• "If [Israeli officials] decided stupidly to invade Gaza, we will fight them with God's help. We will fight them like lions."
-USA Today, March 1, 2008

• "We accept a state on the June 4 line with Jerusalem as capital, real sovereignty and full right of return for refugees, but without recognizing Israel."
-Defining Hamas's position as being amenable to a long-term truce whereby Palestinians and Israelis would live side by side, though he reiterated that Hamas would not formally recognize the Jewish state. CBC, Apr. 21, 2008

• "The start is not good. You commented on Bombay but you say nothing about the crime of the enemy. This policy of double standards should stop."
-Addressing U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, whom he chastised for condemning terrorist attacks in Mumbai but remaining silent about Israel's attacks in Gaza. AFP, Jan. 2, 2009

Quotes about:

• "These guys were entirely rational. They are not wild-eyed shrieking wackos."
-Edward Peck, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, after meeting with a group of Hamas leaders including Mashaal, whom Peck said was "moderate in many senses." Times of London, July 10, 2006

• "Seen as a hardliner who has used his influence in the last year to move Hamas from a political direction to greater confrontation with Israel."
-The Guardian, Jan. 10, 2007

• "Few who have met [Mashaal] question his leadership qualities. A senior Arab official with decades of experience came away particularly impressed with his 'willingness to learn,' which he noted was rare indeed for those at his level. The question, rather, is whether...[his] brand of militant pragmatism will continue to hold sway within the Hamas leadership."
-Mouin Rabbani, in a preface to a Mashaal interview published in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Spring 2008