Leader of Battered Hamas Trying to Boost Foreign Support

By Patrick Goodenough | October 11, 2013 | 5:34 AM EDT

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal visited Turkey this week and may soon travel to Iran. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is traveling again, stoking fresh speculation that the Palestinian terrorist group’s exiled chief is again looking for a new base and trying to shore up foreign sponsorship following diplomatic blunders and unforeseen “Arab spring” developments.

Israel Radio reported Thursday that Meshaal is soon to visit Tehran, a capital that was deeply supportive of Hamas until it backed the wrong side – from Iran’s point of view – in the Syrian civil war.

Earlier this week, Meshaal visited Ankara for talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, viewed by the Obama administration as a key counter-terrorism ally despite his support for a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO).

It was Meshaal’s third visit to Turkey in 13 months, and some reports suggested that Hamas may be hoping to open an office in Turkey.

Asked about those reports, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said merely that the U.S. government’s position on Hamas has not changed.

“It’s a foreign terrorist organization that remains a destabilizing force in Gaza and the region,” she said. “In terms of specific things that might happen in Turkey, I’d refer you to the government of Turkey to answer those questions.”

Turkey’s government had little to say about the visit, reporting merely that Meshaal, Erdogan and other senior Turkish officials had met behind closed doors for three hours of talks.

Hamas was established in 1987 as a Palestinian arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and was listed as an FTO in the mid-1990s. The Sunni group’s founding charter calls for Jews to be killed and says all Muslims are duty-bound to join a jihad to destroy Israel.

Official U.S. policy shuns dealings with the group unless it meets criteria established by the Mideast “Quartet” – the U.S., Russia, European Union and the U.N. – which says it must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and adhere to all previously signed Israel-Palestinian agreements.

In 2006, Hamas defeated Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction in legislative elections and the following year seized control of the Gaza Strip amid bloody clashes with Fatah forces. The rift persists, despite multiple reconciliation efforts, and Hamas remains in control of Gaza.

But in recent years, its standing outside the Palestinian territories has been shaken, first by the Syrian conflict and then by the military takeover that ended the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt last July.

Hamas had long been supported by the Iranian and Syrian regimes, and for the past 13 years Meshaal and his “political bureau” – located outside the Palestinian territories in an effort avoid Israel’s reach – had been based in Damascus.

But as the anti-Assad uprising turned into a civil war, Hamas found itself caught between its loyalty to the regime that sponsored it and its natural affinity for the Sunni opposition, which includes the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

Meshaal left Damascus in January 2012 and ended up in Qatar – a key sponsor of the anti-Assad rebellion – angering Iran in the process. A visit to Tehran now would suggest a thaw may be in the air. A Lebanese newspaper close to Hezbollah reported last month that Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian officials had met in Lebanon to discuss regional developments.

Egypt became a far more welcoming destination for Hamas once President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood administration took office in mid-2012. But that changed again on July 3, when the Egyptian military ousted Morsi and installed an interim government.

The military takeover did not bode well for Hamas, nor did its destruction of smuggling tunnels between the Egyptian Sinai and the southern Gaza Strip which Hamas has long depended on for bringing in supplies, including weapons and consumer goods.

Qatar’s status as Hamas’ new patron has also been subject to much speculation, since a change at the helm in June, when Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani became the new emir after his father’s abdication.

Qatar was the only Gulf state to have supported the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, but after Morsi’s ousting the new emir sent a cable of congratulations to the military-installed interim president, and expressed support for “brotherly Egypt.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow