File image - A Palestinian man hugs Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal (R) at Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

Gaza City, Palestinian Territories - Khaled Meshaal has been reelected head of the Islamist Hamas movement, an official said, drawing a cautious welcome from the rival Fatah movement which rules the West Bank.

The reelection of the charismatic 56-year-old as the overall head of the Palestinian Islamist movement which rules Gaza, was widely seen as a shoo-in, with his new mandate confirmed by a vote in Cairo late on Monday.

“The leaders of Hamas chose Meshaal,” a high-ranking official told AFP by phone, speaking on condition of anonymity after a late-night vote of the Shura Council which groups Hamas leaders from Gaza, the West Bank and overseas.

His reelection was welcomed as a positive step by a senior member of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah movement.

“Meshaal is a pragmatic person and may be more malleable than others in Hamas,” Fatah Central Committee member Mahmud Alul told Voice of Palestine radio.

“This may help in pushing forth a number of political files and also internally to achieve reconciliation,” he said, referring to efforts to bridge years of bitter rivalry between the two Palestinian national movements.

“All we want is a capable movement that can lead Hamas. There needs to be a leadership that can impose a political will Ä one approach and not contradictory ones Ä especially in terms of reconciliation and the overall Palestinian cause,” he said.

There was no official reaction from Israel to his reelection, although public radio described Meshaal as a “pragmatist with charisma,” saying he represented “hardcore Hamas with a Western facade.”

In recent years, Meshaal has modified his position adopting an implicit acceptance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, although the Jewish state has remained guarded.

Following speculation he would be forced aside by the movement's powerful Gaza leadership, Meshaal himself said last year he would not seek a new term.

But in the light of the regional turmoil sparked by the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the thinking shifted, and Meshaal came to be seen as best-placed to guide the Islamist movement through the rapidly changing environment because of his extensive contacts in the Arab world, another Hamas official said.

Developments since the Arab Spring “pushed Hamas to choose Meshaal... who has given the movement a national face... and has good relations in the Arab world,” the official said.

A brilliant orator, Meshaal has used the freedom of movement that is denied to Hamas leaders in Gaza to criss-cross the Arab and Muslim world, raising the profile of the Islamist movement which seized control of the coastal enclave from forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas six years ago.

Hamas sources said the Shura Council had decided to appoint two deputies who would work under Meshaal Ä Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniya who would be responsible for issues within the Palestinian territories, and Mussa Abu Marzuq who would handle all external issues.

Meshaal, who was born in the West Bank but went into exile as a child, made his first-ever visit to Gaza in December where he received a hero's welcome as he attended the celebrations marking 25 years since the founding of Hamas.

He was propelled to the movement's leadership in 2004 after Israel assassinated Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdelaziz al-Rantissi in two deadly strikes on Gaza.

He himself is no stranger to Israeli attempts on his life, surviving a bungled assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997 when agents of Israel's Mossad spy agency tried to poison him.

Meshaal was for years based in Damascus but last year he relocated to Doha, severing ties with President Bashar al-Assad's regime which has been battling a major uprising since March 2011.

Hamas has been subjected to a Western boycott since it won a shock victory over the long-dominant Fatah movement in a 2006

Palestinian parliamentary election.

Nearly 18 months later, bitter infighting between the rival movements escalated into bloody street battles in Gaza, which culminated in Hamas expelling Fatah loyalists and seizing control of the territory.

Although the two factions signed a unity deal in April 2011, the agreement has largely stalled. - Sapa-AFP