Hamas's potential departure from Doha echoes past moves

The political wing of the Gaza’s embattled rulers has long been located abroad. After several homes and sporadic expulsions, reports suggest the Qatar-based officers could be packing their bags.

Andrei Cojocaru

Hamas's potential departure from Doha echoes past moves

After years spent crisscrossing the Middle East via a series of temporary homes, the political bureau of Hamas may soon be on the move yet again. An office that very few seem to want, Hamas political leaders are used to being expelled, having variously been based in Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and most recently, Qatar.

At the end of April, the Wall Street Journal reported that it may be time to up sticks again, citing Arab officials who say Hamas has engaged at least two regional countries with requests to house its political office. Oman was mentioned as being one.

American lawmakers have looked to Qatar to advance ceasefire negotiations between Hamas and Israel, given that the tiny yet influential Gulf state currently hosts the former.

Hamas denied any suggestion that its political wing would leave Qatar, yet did so on the same day that the head of Hamas’s political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul.

As reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Arab officials said Hamas was trying to build ties with Turkey, which may yet provide direct assistance to the movement. This fuelled suggestions that Turkey was the second potential host country.

Based in Jordan

Since its establishment after the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987, Hamas has had close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, which offered ideological, political, and financial backing.

Since the 1970s, the Palestinian and Jordanian branches of the Brotherhood have been integrated organisationally. Ever since 1991, when Hamas set up an office in Jordan headed by Mohammed Nazzal, their relationship with the Jordanian government has been choppy, with several big disagreements along the way.

A year after opening its first office, Amman permitted Hamas to open others in Jordan, despite Jordan's participation in the 1991 Madrid conference, where Hamas stood in opposition.

Hamas established its political bureau in Amman under the leadership of Mousa Abu Marzouk after Israel began expelling the leaders of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood from Palestinian territories.

Following a series of operations conducted by Hamas inside Israeli territory, however, relations between the movement and Amman began to deteriorate.

After the signing of the Wadi Araba Peace Agreement between Israel and Jordan in October 1994, Israeli pressure built. In May 1995, Jordan ordered Marzouk's departure, along with fellow bureau member Imad al-Alami.

Marzouk went to the United States, where he held residency. Shortly after arriving, he was detained and remained behind bars for two years before finally being released. In 1997, the late King Hussein allowed his return to Jordan.

This did not end tensions between the movement and the Hashemite Kingdom, however, as Jordanian authorities arrested several Hamas members that same year.

An office that very few seem to want, Hamas political leaders are used to being expelled, having variously called Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and Qatar home.

Mashal's lucky escape

On 25 September 1997, there was an Israeli assassination attempt against the new head of Hamas's political bureau in Jordan, Khaled Mashal.

Born in the West Bank, Mashal's family were forced out in 1967 after the Israeli occupation. He studied in Kuwait, teaching physics whilst becoming politically active. From the late 1980s, he worked full-time for Hamas.

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, Mashal and other senior Hamas officers relocated to Jordan. Seven years later, walking to his office, two Mossad agents with fake Canadian passports approached him from behind and administered a shot of poison behind his ear.

Later that day, Mashal had severe headaches and vomiting and later fell into a coma. Yet his bodyguards had caught the assailants. Two were now in Jordanian detention, while other team members were holed up in the Israeli embassy.

Jordan's king demanded the antidote from Israel's then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who refused. King Hussein, fearing mass protests in Jordan, then threatened to rip up the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty and put the agents on trial. Only then, after intervention from the United States, did the head of Mossad fly into Amman with the antidote. It was administered, and Mashal survived.

Jordan released the agents in return for Israel's release of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and several other Palestinian detainees. Yassin returned to the Gaza Strip after receiving medical treatment in Jordan.

In 1999, Jordan told Mashal and his team they needed to leave. Jordanian authorities then shut Hamas's offices and issued arrest warrants for six of its leaders. Mashal, Marzouk, Ibrahim Ghosheh, Izzat al-Risheq, Sami Khater, and Mohammed Nazzal were all charged with affiliation with a "non-Jordanian organisation". Warrants were issued while Mashal, Marzouk, and Ghosheh were in Tehran.

Upon their return to Jordan, Marzouk was deported. The others were detained. In November 1999, Mashal, Ghosheh, al-Risheq, and Khater were deported to Qatar.

Road to Damascus

Within weeks, they had relocated to Syria, where thousands of Palestinian refugees lived in camps. In the preceding years, the Syrian regime had forged ties with Hamas, both having opposed the Oslo Accords in 1993.

To some, it seemed like an odd fit given Hamas's association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was hated by Syria's ruling Ba'ath Party to such an extent that members could expect the death penalty.

Yet a year earlier, in 1998, Sheikh Yassin had travelled to Damascus, where he met the late President Hafez al-Assad, who died in June 2000.

During this visit, al-Assad gave Yassin and Hamas the green light to begin operations in Syria. Palestinian refugee camps were opened to the group's activities. When al-Assad's son Bashar took over in 2000, the arrangement continued.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah during a meeting with the deputy chief of the Palestinian Hamas movement, Saleh al-Aruri, at an undisclosed location in Lebanon on September 2, 2023.

During this time, Hamas developed ties with Hezbollah and Iran, both allies of the Syrian regime, resulting in what became known as the Axis of Resistance.

Hamas remained in Syria until civil war broke out in 2011. This decade witnessed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the July 2006 war, and the Israeli offensive on Gaza in 2008.

In 2011, Bashar al-Assad's regime set about suppressing Syria's mainly Sunni protests. Armed groups fought back. Hamas backed the rebels logistically and militarily, even taking part in operations against Syrian forces.

Its most notable military formation was the Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis (Region of the Holy House), led by one of Mashal's assistants. It was primarily based in the giant Yarmouk Camp, which it defended from government attacks.

Returning to Doha

At the start of 2012, the political leadership of Hamas opted to leave Syria and relocate once more to Doha in Qatar, where they settled. They also increased their presence in Turkey, an ally of Qatar.

A decade later, on 19 October 2022, a reconciliation meeting between Hamas and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus was arranged by Iran and Hezbollah, ostensibly to bolster unity among the 'Axis of Resistance'.

Yet the meeting did not elicit any new cooperation between Hamas and Syria, while Turkish leaders sent several Hamas leaders packing as part of Ankara's efforts to improve its relations with Israel.

Turkish-Syrian relations are bad, and some saw the Turkish ejection as a reaction to the Hamas meeting in Damascus. Yet Qatar, which is strongly critical of the al-Assad regime, did not take any similar actions against Hamas leaders in Doha.

Among those expelled from Turkey was Saleh al-Arouri, a founding commander of Hamas's armed wing and its leader in the West Bank. He relocated to Beirut, where he was assassinated by Israel in an air strike in January of this year.

Whether Hamas moves to Turkey, settles in the Sultanate of Oman (which, like Qatar, plays a mediating role), stays in Doha, or moves elsewhere, its political office will be much diminished after months of Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip.

For some analysts, the location of any Hamas political bureau is secondary to the more basic and pertinent question of whether Hamas will survive at all and, if so, in what form?

The answers seem sure to follow soon.

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