Khaled Meshaal, the top political official of Palestinian Islamist faction Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip, will not seek re-election when a vote to choose its leadership is held soon, the group said on Saturday.

A Hamas statement said Council of his intention to step down, wanting to stress the path of democracy and bring in new blood to the leadership but the Shura Council will make the final call, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said in Gaza.

Meshaal, 55, has been based in Damascus since 2001 fearing for his safety and restriction of movement in Gaza. He has been Iranian-backed Hamas's chief leader since 1996, responsible for setting policy and planning attacks against Israel.

Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement which holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, in a brief civil war in 2007.

Hamas and Fatah agreed to bury the hatchet and end their hostility with a reconciliation deal last year, but their agreement has yet to be implemented in deed or in spirit.

Israel, the United States and the European Union consider Hamas a terrorist group opposed to peace and committed to violence to destroy what it calls the Zionist entity. Israel has said that a Palestinian unity government which includes Hamas will end peace hopes.

Meshaal's supporters among Palestinians and in Arab countries consider him to be a pragmatic leader who has attracted political support at home and financial support abroad for the movement that was founded in 1987.

Israel blames Meshaal for planning many attacks that have killed hundreds of its soldiers and civilians. In 1997 he was the subject of a failed assassination attempt by Mossad agents, an incident that caused a rift in Israel-Jordan relations.

Late Jordanian King Hussein forced Israel to supply the antidote for a lethal injection Meshaal was given, and to release the group's founder, Ahmed Yassin, from prison in 1997. Israel assassinated Yassin in an air strike in 2004.

Many Hamas operatives who were based in Syria have recently returned to Gaza as the group assesses the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime which is mired in a bloody 10-month-long uprising. Hamas has refused to openly back Assad.

RIFTS COULD EMERGE

A Gaza political analyst said that if Meshaal was replaced, hidden internal rifts could surface and the Hamas's Gaza leaders may take over as prime decision-makers from those in exile.

If Meshaal insists on stepping down, it could pave the way for the rise of other power bases and the issue of who should lead Hamas - officials in Gaza or abroad - will surface, Hani Habib told Reuters.

He said that disputes between the leaders in Gaza and abroad worsened after Meshaal angered those in Gaza by agreeing to reconciliation with Fatah and giving Abbas a year to pursue peace talks with Israel.

Habib said he did not expect a more radical successor.

In any circumstances I believe that the general trend within Hamas and political Islam in the world is now to show more flexibility towards engaging with the world, he said.

(Editing by Ori Lewis)