Named as an elder brother by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Mr. Meshaal is the U.S.-educated son of a Palestinian working for the foreign office of the Egyptian government and the uncle of Mohammed Meshaal, the first secretary at the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Cairo. He led Hamas’s founding movement in Jordan in 1981. Hamas was founded in Gaza and the West Bank in 1987, and has run the Gaza Strip since 2007.
He left Jordan and soon became embroiled in the controversy over the Oslo Accords, which were signed between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. In 1996, he met President Clinton, who came to Jordan on an official visit and reportedly warned Meshaal to warn Palestinian leaders not to sign any new agreements with Israel and to let the majority of Palestinians vote in a referendum on its future. Mr. Meshaal ignored the advice and signed the 1993 Oslo Accords. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he spent several months in Egypt’s West Bank camp of Rafah as part of a UNIDO training mission and was photographed in his robes sitting with members of the al-Qaeda terror group.
Mr. Meshaal became one of the most influential political figures in the Palestinian territories, and one of its most active players. In 2006, Hamas won the legislative elections in Palestine, but leaders refused to join a government led by Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Mr. Meshaal refused to recognize the election results and ended up being expelled from the West Bank.
The following year, Mr. Meshaal was seriously injured in an Israeli airstrike on his car in Gaza City and went into hiding. Three years later, he was again hit by an Israeli strike, and again went into hiding, this time in Iran. Mr. Meshaal was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 and the Saudis were thought to have paid for the surgical treatment. When Israeli soldiers raided the Hamas facilities in the occupied territory that year, Mr. Meshaal went into hiding again, this time in Syria, which borders both Jordan and Israel. He had been a member of Syria’s Baath party since 1982 and lived in Damascus, near his brother, Mohammed.
In 2012, when an American drone targeted a car in Deir al-Zour, just across the border from Syria, and apparently struck Mr. Meshaal’s relative, Muhammad, there was heavy outcry in the U.S. About three months later, as Mr. Meshaal was in Damascus, he was jolted out of bed by an artillery strike on the house that he was then in. The location of his office is in a secret location.
In 2014, Mr. Meshaal traveled to Qatar for months to be treated for cancer, and to arrange the long-term visas for his nephew Bakr, Hamas’s second-in-command. In 2017, he left Qatar and returned to the West Bank, for cancer treatment, before leaving again last year.
In recent months, the Egyptian government has urged Mr. Meshaal to return to Gaza, reportedly agreeing to guarantee his safety, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders of Israel and the United States have also tried to convince him to come back. In December, President Trump also made him part of his peace plan for Palestine, and offered him a room at the White House, in an effort to draw him back into the fold.
Afterwards, Mr. Meshaal praised Trump, but rejected the peace plan offered by his administration.
During the second intifada in the 2000s, Mr. Meshaal was criticized by Hamas members for being too accommodating towards Israel, and not doing enough to resist it. His supporters, including Assad, Egypt’s government and his brother Bakr, blasted him for his attitude toward peace negotiations.
Instead, Mr. Meshaal went on to spend a long period in hiding or supporting the Syrian uprising, serving as the first foreign minister of the Islamic State. After the rise of al-Qaeda, he returned to Gaza and formed a new terrorist organization called Fatah al-Islam, which merged with Hamas.
Mr. Meshaal was appointed Hamas chief in 2012.
In that year, Israeli forces killed a small group of Palestinian militants in Gaza during a botched intelligence operation, killing one of his cousins and two brothers. Following the operation, Mr. Meshaal made a pilgrimage to the shrine at Mecca in Saudi Arabia, where he proposed a truce with Israel in exchange for all of the land it had conquered. Although negotiations were apparently ongoing, they failed to materialize, and a few months later, Israel invaded Gaza.
At the time, he called on all Palestinians, not just Hamas members, to resist Israeli actions.