Alarmed by bloody unrest in Syria, the Hamas militant group has pulled out many of its lower-level cadres from its Damascus headquarters and made contingency plans to move its leadership to locations across the Middle East, senior Hamas members have told The Associated Press.
The Hamas members say the group remains appreciative of Syrian leader Bashar Assad and there is no immediate intention to abandon their base in Damascus. But they confirmed that dozens of low and midlevel members have already left Syria as the security situation grows increasingly precarious.
"Most of Hamas has left Damascus. We have a plan B for leaving if things deteriorate," said a senior Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the inner workings of the secretive group.
Hamas, an Iranian-backed Palestinian group, has been based in Syria for more than a decade. Assad has allowed Hamas, branded a terrorist group by Israel and the West, to use his territory for military training, and provided a valuable headquarters in the heart of the Arab world.
But the uprising in Syria has put Hamas in a difficult place. The UN estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in violence since March, and Hamas is wary of being associated with the government crackdown.
If Hamas does pull out completely, the move could force it to change the way it operates since the leaders would become dispersed across the region and their new hosts may not give them as much freedom. Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, for instance, is set to go to Qatar, a Gulf state with close ties to the U.S. Other leaders would go to Egypt, another American ally, while others would end up in Lebanon, Turkey or the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas leader in the group's Gaza stronghold, says Hamas "hopes that Syria will get out of its difficult internal crisis through a political solution ending further bloodshed in the country." He said there has been "no decision" to leave Damascus.
Signs of change
The plan is the latest sign of change in the Islamic group amid the convulsions of the Arab Spring across the Middle East the past year. The uprisings have been a mixed blessing for Hamas. On one hand, allies like Syria are in trouble. On the other hand, Islamic groups have made strong gains through peaceful elections. While Hamas leaders say they haven't abandoned their dream of destroying Israel, they also seem to be realizing that they can advance their agenda through nonviolent means.
In recent days, Mashaal said Hamas would turn its focus on nonviolent protests against Israel, though he refused to renounce violence.
He also signalled that Hamas might be willing to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Hamas has in the past endorsed the 1967 lines as the first stage toward eliminating Israel.
Hamas also last week began the process of joining the Palestine Liberation Organization 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, and possibly veto, in future peace efforts.
Israeli officials dismiss any suggestion that Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings, rocket attacks and other violence, has changed. They cite the hardline speeches delivered at Hamas' 24th anniversary celebrations earlier this month, when speakers proudly called for "armed resistance" and the destruction of Israel.