James M Dorsey
Malaysia has become a potential base of overseas operations for Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip if Turkey expels or restricts the group’s movements as part of its rapprochement with Israel.
Turkey has in recent months expelled Hamas militants or denied them entry into the country as it seeks to improve its troubled relationship with Israel, according to Israeli news reports.
Turkish-Israeli relations have been strained since Israeli forces stormed a flotilla in 2010 heading for Gaza in a bid to break an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Nine activists were killed and ten Israeli soldiers injured in the incident. The flotilla left Turkey and was chartered by a Turkish NGO.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara in March, becoming the first Israeli president to do so in 15 years. At a summit with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two leaders pledged to open a new chapter in their relationship.
News reports suggested that the expelled Hamas members were on an Israeli list presented to Turkey of individuals involved in the group’s armed activities in violation of their residency conditions in Turkey. Saleh al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau and former military commander, was reportedly among those deported.
Sources close to Hamas have warned that a withdrawal of support for the group would undermine Turkey’s efforts to position itself as a champion of Muslim causes, foremost Palestine, at a time when it competes for influence geopolitics and religious soft power in the Muslim world. .
“Tukey knows that a break with Hamas would hurt his image. Also, remember that Palestine remains an emotional issue in Turkey itself,” a source said.
Israel has long demanded that Turkey, which has granted Turkish citizenship to some Hamas leaders, crack down on the group as part of any improved ties.
Earlier this week, Al Mekalemeen, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated TV channel, said it was closing its operations in Turkey “due to circumstances that everyone knows about”. Al Mekalemeen did not specify the circumstances.
Turkey had earlier begun to cut back on Egyptian opposition media that had flocked to Istanbul or been newly established in the city as it became a mecca for mainly Islamist opposition and dissidents from the Middle East.
Hamas is widely seen as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The anti-Islamist moves are part of wider Turkish efforts to improve relations with its Middle Eastern critics, not just Israel but also Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, where general-turned-president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi was overthrown in 2013. a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government with Saudi and Emirati support.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Last year, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed called on Western countries to identify Hamas in its entirety rather than just its military wing as a terrorist organization.
Israel and Egypt have blocked Gaza since 2005, when Israeli troops withdrew from the strip captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Hamas took control of the area in 2007 in armed clashes with its rival Al Fatah after narrowly winning the 2006 elections. Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas leads Al Fatah.
Ironically, Hamas retains some support from Qatar with Israel’s tacit agreement.
Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’s most senior leaders, is believed to still reside in the Gulf state, where he meets publicly with visiting dignitaries like Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and Palestinians from the West Bank . The Hamas official also met twice in the past three years with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Still, Qatar is unlikely to allow the group to recover after the Gulf state forced it to move to Turkey as part of a 2014 deal that led to the return of Saudi, Emirati and Bahrain in Doha. The ambassadors had been withdrawn in protest at Qatar’s alleged support for the Islamists.
As a result, Malaysia has become a potential base as the group has nowhere to go in the Middle East if Turkey expels it or drastically reduces its operations and presence in the country.
If forced to find another base, Hamas’ choices are reminiscent of those Palestinian Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat faced in 1982 when Israeli troops forced Palestinian fighters out of Beirut .
At the time, Tunisia, the PLO’s new homeland, seemed a long way from Palestine but was at least an Arab country. Malaysia would seem not only geographically but also culturally further away from Palestine than Tunisia.
Even so, Hamas enjoys public support in Malaysia.
“They already have a substantial base here. Not only in the form of the Palestinian Cultural Organization Malaysia, but also other employees in universities and as professionals. So anything that is not a base – whatever its design – would be acceptable,” said a well-placed Malaysian source.
Some analysts said the cultural organization, or PCOM, was widely seen as Hamas’ “embassy” in competition with the official Al Fatah-controlled Palestinian embassy in Kuala Lumpur. The PCOM was founded after Al Fatah refused to leave the embassy after the 2006 elections.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Sri Saifuddin Abdullah pointed out last month that he tweeted about a phone call with Mr Haniyeh, the Qatar-based Hamas leader.
The well-placed Malaysian source said the country’s security forces may oppose giving Hamas more leeway in Malaysia. The security forces of some other Southeast Asian countries would likely support their Malaysian counterparts.
Security concerns would likely center on fears that an increased Hamas presence could turn Malaysia into a battleground in the Middle East. Israel is held responsible for the 2018 killing in Kuala Lumpur of a Palestinian university professor and activist suspected of being a member of Hamas.
Hamas has used its cultural center in Kuala Lumpur to maintain unofficial contacts with various Southeast Asian countries that do not want to be seen as targeting the group because of their relations with Israel, their opposition to the political Islam and/or their status in Europe and the United States. The United States has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia, the main Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia, have diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Malaysia is more outspoken in its opposition to the Jewish state, its support for the Palestinians, and sometimes its anti-Semitic statements, including from its former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
Admittedly, the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel is only in its infancy at a time when broader efforts to reduce regional tensions remain fragile. Moreover, with US-Iran negotiations to revive the 2015 international accord that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program seemingly to breaking point, tensions could still easily spiral out of control.
A failure to agree on a return to the accord, from which the United States unilaterally withdrew in 2018, could tip the Israeli-Turkish rapprochement.
Additionally, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned last month that a “sustainable relationship” between Israel and Turkey would require Israel to “respect international law on the Palestinian issue.” Cavusoglu did not specify what he was referring to, but is expected to visit Israel later this month.
Also posted on Medium.