Hamas Leader Backs Syrian Protesters
By MATT BRADLEY in Cairo and CHARLES LEVINSON in Jerusalem
CAIRO—Hamas has thrown its political clout behind an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Palestinian Islamist group's longtime patron and host, a shift that cracks a formidable alliance and further widens the Middle East's sectarian divide.
Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, told worshipers at Cairo's Al Azhar mosque during Friday prayers that the political party and militia was supporting the uprising against Mr. Assad, calling the revolutionaries "heroic," according to the Associated Press.
He made his comments alongside several Muslim Brotherhood members in front of thousands of admirers at Al Azhar, one of the oldest religious universities in the world and the seat of Sunni learning, lending sway to his Sunni world view. Hamas is the Palestinian wing of the international Muslim Brotherhood movement which has its headquarters and ideological center in the Egyptian capital.
Hamas's policy shift marks a diplomatic setback for Mr. Assad's embattled regime, as Arab and Western leaders gathered in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, to debate international support for an 11-month old uprising that has killed thousands of Syrian dissenters.
It removes a crucial partner from a powerful anti-Israeli coalition that stretched from Iran through Syria to the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, where Hamas and Hezbollah, the majority Shiite Lebanese militia and political party, formed a powerful front against Israel—with Hamas the only Sunni member.
But the altered loyalties could raise further questions about the prominent role Islamists are playing in the Syrian rebellion. The leader of al Qaeda, the Sunni-aligned global terrorist movement, recently backed the Syrian uprising as well. Several recent attacks on Syrian military operations bore al Qaeda trademarks, according to the Syrian government and some security analysts.Still, for Israel, Hamas's decision looks to be a mixed blessing. It will likely deal a blow to the Iran-backed axis sworn to Israel's destruction. It could continue the gradual shift away from violent resistance of a group that has long stood as one of Israel's most violent foes, responsible for scores of fatal bombings and rocket attacks.
The Hamas shift could push forward a reconciliation with Hamas's Palestinian rivals, the Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas, and move Hamas firmly into the orbit of Sunni-led Arab states with whom the U.S. has close ties. Washington considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
The shift especially suggests a wider alliance with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which could complicate relations with Egypt for Israeli leaders and the U.S.
In his speech Friday in Cairo, Mr. Haniyeh asked the Muslim and Arab world to defend Jerusalem against Israeli attempts to weaken its Arab identity of the city, according to the Associated Press.
He recited an Arabic poem that says that the path to Jerusalem starts in Cairo. The crowd cheered when he said Hamas wouldn't recognize Israel, and chanted, "Hey, Haniyeh, do not leave the gun" and "To Jerusalem, we march in the millions."
Many in Cairo have long speculated that Hamas might be considering a move toward the Egyptian capital as Iran's regional clout declines and antiregime protesters encircle the Syrian capital, where Hamas has its headquarters in exile.
The move away from Damascus draws bolder lines across the Middle Eastern sectarian patchwork. Hamas will be drawn into the Sunni political arc widening across North Africa; Sunni Islamist movements are celebrating electoral victories in newly formed governments in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
"The Sunni Islamist groups have the benefit of being popularly elected. They have a legitimacy that many of their counterparts can't claim," said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, Qatar, who has written in support of the rebels. "The so-called resistance axis is done. It is now a thing of the past."
Mr. Hamid added that Hamas's shifting stance also draws it closer to those established Sunni political powers that enjoyed significant diplomatic clout even before the Arab Spring of successive pro-democracy uprisings.
Western-aligned states such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the most prominent voices among those Sunni Islamist regimes.
Hamas officials couldn't be reached for comment on Friday.
Essam al-Erian, head of the Egyptian Parliament's Foreign Affairs committee and a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said that no decisions had been reached on hosting Hamas in the Egyptian capital. The group, however, would be welcome, he said.
"I think that after this revolution, Hamas is welcome in Cairo, in Tripoli in Libya and in Tunisia and also Morocco," Mr. Erian said. "This is the time of the people, not the regime."
News of Hamas's break with Damascus came late on Friday, after most Israeli officials had turned off their phones for the Sabbath.
In recent months, as Hamas showed early signs it was moving toward a break with Damascus, Israeli officials remained largely silent, standing by their years-old posture that Israel's view toward Hamas would remain unchanged as long as the movement refused to recognize Israel's right to exist or renounce violence.