DOHA, Qatar ― After months of uncertainty about whether the Palestinian militant group Hamas can maintain its strategically valuable political headquarters in the Qatari capital of Doha, a string of new developments suggests an answer may come soon: No.

The Wall Street Journal on Saturday published an article saying Hamas recently asked two regional governments if they would host its leaders instead of Qatar, a U.S. ally that has hosted them for more than a decade. The same day, Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, where the Palestinian organization already has an office and deep connections.

A small but loud crew of mostly Republican lawmakers has for years opposed the U.S. policy of tacitly blessing Hamas leaders’ residence in Qatar, a short drive from America’s largest base in the Middle East. And on Tuesday, they got a boost from a prominent Democrat: Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) issued a statement saying Qatar should eject Hamas’ leadership if there is not progress soon on freeing remaining hostages whom the Palestinian group and partners captured in their shock attack on Israel on Oct. 7, when nearly 1,200 people were killed.

Qatar’s embassy in Washington quickly responded: “Blaming and threatening the mediator is not constructive.” Still, on Wednesday, Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, said his country is conducting “a full evaluation” of its role in mediation, citing “political exploitation.”

A spokesperson for the Qatari government did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

Established in 2012 with U.S. encouragement, the Hamas office in Qatar has for years aggravated hawkish Americans and hard-right Israelis, such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who see no value in a channel for dialogue with an organization listed by the U.S. as a terrorist group. Those critics now seem to have reached a win-win juncture: Either Qatar will evict the Hamas leadership, sending a message globally that they are toxic, or the threat of expulsion will force Hamas to make concessions in ongoing negotiations for the release of the Israeli hostages.

But in rare, extensive interviews late last month, two prominent Hamas leaders separately spoke of flexibility on their political leadership’s location, which, if true, would undercut the assumption that forcing a relocation would significantly pressure the group, making it more amenable to U.S. and Israeli demands.

“The presence of Hamas in Qatar was upon an American direct demand. There’s actually an interest to make Hamas remain in Qatar, because Qatar is the only country which could make a breakthrough on something that would be beneficial for everyone. Hamas, on the other hand, had many options, but the U.S. and Israel had no options,” argued Mousa Abu Marzouk, a longtime member of Hamas’ governing body, in a March 30 interview with HuffPost.

His remarks came shortly after a Hamas delegation returned from a lengthy visit to Iran. Some experts and officials see Tehran as a possible next base for the Palestinian group, a scenario that would leave the U.S. with far less access to or leverage over Hamas, as Washington has no diplomatic ties with Iran and already subjects the country to a wide range of sanctions.

Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh, shown here at a March 1, 2017, meeting of Hamas officials in Doha, Qatar, recently met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, where Hamas already has an office.
Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh, shown here at a March 1, 2017, meeting of Hamas officials in Doha, Qatar, recently met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, where Hamas already has an office.

Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Basem Naim, a member of Hamas’ politburo in Gaza, also cast the organization as prepared to endure the complexities of a move.

“If [the Qataris] are keeping the same position by hosting the leadership of Hamas, we are very thankful. But at the same time, if they decide on the other direction, Hamas leadership is used to [moving] from place to place,” Naim told HuffPost on March 29. “In the end, we are the leaders of a resistance movement ― we are the leaders of a people who are under occupation. We know that we have to pay some price for this.”

Prior to moving to Doha, top Hamas figures who wanted to evade Israel’s reach ― given its ability to strike them in Gaza, where their group is based ― were for more than a decade situated in Syria, a country historically leery of both the U.S. and Israel. After Syrian President Bashar Assad began a massive crackdown against his own people, Hamas’ leadership decided to leave, and the Obama administration endorsed the idea that they move to Qatar.

The arrangement was expected to benefit all sides by giving the U.S. a friendly intermediary via Qatar to manage rounds of Israeli-Palestinian violence and work on a lasting settlement, granting Qatar significant influence regionally and giving Hamas a convenient, secure base and a degree of tacit international legitimacy.

U.S. officials saw the link as helping wind down fighting between Hamas and Israel in 2014, 2019 and 2021.

Naim told HuffPost the Qataris and Americans should see the value in keeping an American ally close to a player whom U.S. officials may disdain but regularly need to account for.

“This is an independent country,” Naim said in a March 29 interview in Doha. “I am sure they are wise enough to persuade the Americans, for example, that the presence of the leadership here is very helpful in reaching an end of this crisis, and it is not only about the current situation, it is about how to reach a final solution of this whole conflict.”

He noted that the U.S. had also previously asked Qatar to host an office for the Taliban, the Afghan militia, and that hawkish former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met in Doha with Taliban leaders. “Maybe part of this pressure is coming from the Israeli right wing,” Naim said.

While some Republicans are now slamming the idea of engagement with Hamas, Trump administration figures, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left), shown here during a Nov. 21, 2020, meeting with a Taliban delegation in Doha, held unprecedented high-level talks with the Afghanistan militants.
While some Republicans are now slamming the idea of engagement with Hamas, Trump administration figures, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left), shown here during a Nov. 21, 2020, meeting with a Taliban delegation in Doha, held unprecedented high-level talks with the Afghanistan militants.

Hamas has a clear interest in both projecting continued confidence and challenging the idea it is becoming more isolated. As the group maneuvers to retain influence following Israel’s campaign against it in Gaza ― a U.S.-backed operation that has killed more civilians than Hamas fighters for a total death toll of more than 34,000 so far, according to local authorities ― ambiguity can be strategically useful.

When HuffPost contacted Naim on Monday, he pointed to a statement he issued this weekend that deemed the Journal article “complicit with the Israeli misleading propaganda.”

Claims that Hamas “is considering leaving Qatar for another country… have no basis,” his statement said.

Whatever address his group ends up at, Naim’s earlier comments to HuffPost suggested it’s unlikely Hamas will abandon its overall position that it must be central to Israel-Palestine discussions, or its assertion that it is Israel making a settlement less likely by refusing to acknowledge that and, in the group’s view, ensuring cycles of bloodshed.

“Everyone today, including the Americans, knows that Hamas is an inherent part of the political fabric of the Palestinians and is a strong power,” Naim said. “No one can easily decide to overcome it or to avoid it, and any agreement with any other party will not lead to stability or a solution, therefore you have to have contact.”

In significant ways, the outcome of the location debate could be key to how Hamas evolves as well as the prospects for an end to the current war in Gaza and a peace deal.

Should it move to Turkey, for instance, Erdogan would likely seek to leverage his hosting of Hamas to ensure any Israeli-Palestinian settlement is beneficial for Turkish interests, Qatar University academics Ali Bakir and Nesibe Hicret Battaloglu wrote in an essay earlier this year. Given Turkey’s record of stubbornness in dealing with its Western allies, such a move could seriously complicate matters for the U.S.

Meanwhile, success in dislodging Hamas from Qatar could ironically help the organization leverage complaints about aggressive steps by Israel and its advocates in future negotiations ― a tactic previewed in their interviews with HuffPost.

“The Israeli pressure [on Qatar] is for one main purpose: the continuation of the war, and to not create any horizon of solving through negotiations or to end this aggression,” Abu Marzouk argued to HuffPost earlier this month. “Netanyahu’s policy is to push in every way to continue the war so he will remain in his seat.”

It’s widely acknowledged that the U.S. will be dealing with Hamas for months and years to come, given its entrenchment in Gaza and concerns like the fate of the Israeli hostages.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on April 10, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) blasted the idea that lawmakers should be working on punishing Qatar for hosting the Palestinian group’s leaders.

“The surest way to guarantee that those hostages never get released is to pass this resolution,” Murphy said, referring to a proposal from Sen. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) to revoke Qatar’s status as a major American ally unless it unless it bears down on Hamas, including by expelling its leaders or extraditing them to the U.S.

“We may not like the fact that we have to be negotiating with a terrorist organization. We may not like the fact that someone in the region has to be the conduit for those talks. But we don’t live in a world of fantasy ― we live in a world of reality.”

source

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