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Iran: Expulsion From Jordan Only Temporary Setback For Hamas

  • Charles Recknagel

Jordan's deportation of four leaders of Hamas appears to have dealt a blow to the Palestinian group and its violent opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, the expulsion is likely to be only a temporary setback.

Prague, 24 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For years, Amman and Damascus have been safe havens from which the most radical leaders of Hamas could operate beyond the reach of the Israeli and Palestinian Authority security services.

But Jordan's recent closure of the Amman office of Hamas, the acronym of the Islamic Resistance Movement, now has changed that equation and set the group looking for new political bases and allies abroad.

Jordan over the weekend sent four key leaders of Hamas's politburo in Amman to Qatar. The leaders' departure, which Amman called voluntary but Hamas said was forced, capped a months-long campaign to end Hamas's operation in the kingdom.

Analysts say that Jordan was under both internal and external pressure to close down Hamas, which adamantly rejects both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel.

Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hamas at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence at Saint Andrew's University in Scotland, told RFE/RL by phone that Jordan fears Hamas is radicalizing Jordan's own Islamic opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Magnus Ranstorp:

"Hamas was influencing members within the Muslim Brotherhood, radicalizing them, and, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has no tradition of violence and this was quite worrying as a security threat from the Jordanian point of view."

Hamas considers itself the Palestinian chapter of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic movement that originated several decades ago in Egypt and spread across the Middle East. Muslim Brotherhoods in various countries share the goal of creating Islamic states but differ over the means.

Amman was also under pressure from Israel and Washington to evict Hamas. Such external pressures in the past were mitigated by bad relations between Amman and the hardline Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. But the election of Ehud Barak now appears to have cleared the way for closer Israeli-Jordanian cooperation.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority's curbing of Hamas, as part of its own renewed peace process with Israel, gave Amman still another reason to act now.

Ranstorp says that for some ten years Hamas has used Amman as a safe haven from which its military wing could order attacks within Israel and the Palestinian territories to torpedo the peace process. While the so-called outside leadership in Amman and Damascus ordered military actions, Hamas leaders in Gaza City and the West Bank concentrated on building the group's influential social services network and on political activities.

"Hamas's outside leadership -- in other words, the one existing outside the West Bank and Gaza, [that is] the one in Jordan and Syria -- has served as a very important pressure point. They have been the origins of much of the terrorism. The commands have been issued from both Jordan and Syria, in relation to the military wing in the West Bank."

But if the expulsion of Hamas from Amman now deprives the group of an optimum safe haven bordering the West bank, analysts say the setback is only likely to be temporary.

One reason is that Qatar, which took the Hamas members to defuse any showdown between the group and Jordan, offers them a favorable new operating environment. The Gulf state has commercial relations with Israel, but it and the United Arab Emirates have long given Hamas financial support for its social activities.

Ranstorp says that being in Qatar will afford the Hamas leaders from Amman greater access to the Arab media than they enjoyed in Jordan:

"Qatar is a very good base for them, because Qatar's Al-Jazeera TV is a very liberal satellite television station which is broadcast all over the Middle East. And therefore Hamas will have a very good platform there to challenge the Palestinian Authority and to challenge Israel."

The analyst also says that in Qatar the Hamas men will face few of the restrictions on foreign travel that Amman placed on them. He predicts that they will use some of their new mobility to build closer ties between Hamas, the Hezbollah and Hezbollah's main backer, Tehran. All three sides reject the Arab-Israeli peace process and share ideals of Islamic government. Ranstorp says that their tripartite cooperation has been growing in recent months:

"There is a natural alliance that has been emerging and that coordination has become much closer over time. It is no surprise that when King Abdullah issued the arrest warrants against the Hamas leadership in Jordan that the three main leaders were in Tehran at the time. So, Iran is trying, I think, to forge closer operational relations between the two movements."

He says that in addition to ideological goals, the three sides share common strategic and tactical interests: Ranstorp: "Hamas and Hezbollah officials have often met in Iran and other places to coordinate their strategy, and you can see that Hamas is confronting the Israelis from within while Hezbollah has been confronting the Israelis from the north, in south Lebanon."

Both the Hezbollah and Hamas also see themselves as threatened by recent regional developments. The prospect of renewed peace talks between Israel and Syria -- the powerbroker in Lebanon -- has made the Hezbollah worry its military activities could be curtailed. Hamas has become the target of crackdowns by the Palestinian Authority and now Jordan. Ranstorp says that these kinds of shared problems are only likely to bring the two groups closer in the months ahead.

If so, Hamas may emerge from its current trials only stronger than before.

Until now, the main military cooperation between the Hezbollah and an armed Palestinian resistance group has been with Hamas's rival, the Islamic Jihad, which has a military operation in south Lebanon.

But if the Hezbollah were to extend the same kind of military cooperation to Hamas, the ability of the group's armed wing to resist the Israeli-Palestinian peace process could dramatically increase.

And that could mean that this week's deporting of Hamas's most radical leaders from Jordan will have to be counted by Israel and the Palestinian Authority as only a temporary victory.