Hamas Starts Pulling out of Syria
ALARMED by the fighting in Syria, the Hamas group has withdrawn many of its lower-level officials from its Damascus headquarters and made contingency plans to move its leaders to sites across the Middle East, senior Hamas members have told the Associated Press.
The Hamas members say the group remains supportive of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and there is no immediate intention to abandon their base in Damascus. But they confirmed that dozens of low and mid-level members had left Syria as the security situation deteriorated.
"Most of Hamas has left Damascus. We have a plan B for leaving if things deteriorate," a senior Hamas official said, on condition of anonymity.
The Iranian-backed Palestinian group has had offices in Syria for more than a decade. Mr Assad has allowed Hamas, considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West, to use Syrian territory for military training and provided a valuable base in the heart of the Arab world.
But the armed uprising in Syria has put Hamas in a bind. The UN estimates more than 5000 people have been killed since March, and Hamas is wary of being linked to the government crackdown.
If Hamas does pull out completely, the move could force the group to change the way it operates since the leaders would become dispersed across the region and their new hosts might not give them as much freedom.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas leader in the group's Gaza stronghold, says Hamas "hopes Syria will get out of its difficult internal crisis through a political solution ending further bloodshed in the country". He said there had been no decision to leave Damascus.
The Arab uprisings have been a mixed blessing for Hamas. On the one hand, allies such as Syria are in trouble. On the other hand, Islamic groups have made strong gains through peaceful elections in other countries.
Hamas leaders say they have not abandoned their aim of destroying Israel, but they seem to be realising they can advance through non-violent means.
In recent days, Hamas supreme leader Khaled Mashaal said Hamas would turn its focus to non-violent protests against Israel, although he refused to renounce violence.
He signalled that Hamas might accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war. In the past Hamas has said the 1967 lines were only the first stage towards eliminating Israel.
Last week Hamas began the process of joining the Palestine Liberation Organisation as it reconciles with the rival Fatah movement. The Fatah-dominated PLO has long sought a political settlement with Israel. Joining the PLO could give Hamas a voice in peace efforts.
But Israeli officials dismiss any suggestion that Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians, has changed.