Hamas has announced that its leader’s foreign tour will continue throughout 2020 in order to complete a very busy political and speaking schedule. The fact that Ismail Haniyeh will thus be out of the Gaza Strip for an entire year raises several important questions.
Why will he be abroad for such a long time even though his regional visits only needed a few weeks? Has Egypt banned him from returning to Gaza through the Rafah Crossing as a punishment for visiting Iran? Or did Hamas decide to keep him outside of Palestine so that he can conduct his visits without Egyptian restrictions, which have prevented such tours by Hamas leaders from Gaza for at least three years?
Haniyeh’s year abroad suggests that Hamas has a busy agenda, which requires him to shuttle between regional capitals. Will he be staying in Qatar or going to other countries, and if so, which ones? Don’t they fear US and Israeli repercussions for hosting the former Palestinian Prime Minister?
As the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, Haniyeh is into his third month of his first foreign tour since taking the role in May 2017. He has already visited Egypt, Qatar, Iran, Oman, Turkey and Malaysia.
In the latter, he met veteran Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, while in Iran he offered condolences for the assassination General Qassem Soleimani, the late Quds Force commander. In Oman, he did the same following the death of Sultan Qaboos, and he has met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan twice.
There is no doubt that Haniyeh takes his duties as the leader of Hamas seriously, in the Gaza Strip and beyond. His work covers all portfolios, but involves mainly political issues, national relations and foreign relations.
The main goal of his foreign tour is to garner support from the Arab and Islamic nations for the Palestinian cause, on both the official and popular levels. This is especially important now that we know what Donald Trumps “deal of the century” means for the Palestinians. Hence, he can expect to seek political backing from Turkey and financial support from Qatar, which has already given huge sums to help rebuild Gaza. Moreover, Egypt has an important role to play in Palestinian reconciliation efforts and the ceasefire with Israel.
Hamas diplomacy during Haniyeh’s tour has seen him given an official reception as a Palestinian leader in Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia and Iran. He received a warm welcome from the general public everywhere that he has been, which has boosted the movement’s role as a key player in Palestinian politics.
There has been no attempt to hide the fact that the rest of Haniyeh’s time outside the Gaza Strip Hamas will see him carrying out as many official and unofficial visits and meetings as possible, in order to let Arab and Muslim leaders — and others, if possible — know about of the threats to the Palestinian cause. Trump’s plan seeks to eradicate it in preparation for a major normalisation project, headed by some Arab countries.
Haniyeh is also expected to be engaged in discussions about the movement’s internal affairs with senior officials based outside of occupied Palestine, who he has not met since his election nearly 30 months ago. This has hindered policy-making and some important decisions that require face to face meetings. The old argument has been raised within Hamas about the feasibility and logic of having all of the movement’s political, military and media officials in besieged Gaza, which is subject to Israeli and Egyptian pressure. If Hamas had chosen to distribute its leaders in various locations, perhaps this wouldn’t be such an issue, and the movement would not be so isolated.
In rallying popular and official support against Trump’s “peace plan”, Haniyeh can expect to strengthen ties with the movement’s friends and repair relations with some countries who have moved off the Hamas radar. Relations with countries hostile towards Hamas are unlikely to change, at least during this tour, unless there are some unexpected developments.
Palestine is always subject to other countries’ foreign affairs, and Hamas is no different. Signs that there may be reconciliation between the Gulf States suggest that Saudi Arabia may make it a precondition that Qatar does not host the Muslim Brotherhood or its affiliated organisations, such as Hamas. Hence, according to Egyptian sources close to the intelligence agencies, Malaysia has said that some of the movement’s officials may live there. At the moment, though, Qatar welcomes it for its important role as a Palestinian liberation movement.
Hamas did not want to comment on the Egyptian claim, despite having close ties with Malaysia. Haniyeh visited the country as part of his tour, given the movement’s strong presence in Kuala Lumpur, regular communication between the two parties, and politicians hosting senior Hamas figures.
In the meantime, Ismail Haniyeh is comfortable in Qatar, where he has close personal ties with the Amir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Moreover, Doha is reasonably central, making it easier for him to travel across the region. Even so, we can expect some negativity about this from Cairo and Riyadh. It could be an interesting year for the Hamas leader.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.