Hamas’ PLO moment?

Amira Howeidy , Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Reports on Qatari plans to evict Hamas from Doha have recalled the decades-old history of the nomadic Palestinian leadership in exile, writes Amira Howeidy

Hamas  PLO moment
PLO leader Yasser Arafat among his comrades in Beirut in early 1982 (photo: AFP)


The chatter on Qatar’s intention to expel the Palestinian group Hamas from Doha, which made the news earlier this week, seems to have abated for now, after both sides denied the claims.

While the rumours are hardly new, with similar “leaks” of Qatari threats appearing in news outlets as far back as October 2023, their recent intensity and details of serious alternative host countries like Turkey have lent weight to this scenario.

In their short lifespan, the reports, or test balloons as some have insisted, have been reminiscent of the long history of the roving Palestinian leadership abroad from the early days of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the 1960s.

Despite the structural and contextual differences between Hamas and the PLO, both share a history of exile and displacement that is part and parcel of the Palestinian experience since the Catastrophe (Nakba) of 1948 and the creation of Israel. The nomadic relocations of the Palestinian leadership between Arab capitals for almost six decades are also political metaphors for many watershed moments that have shaped the region’s history.

“A number of clear parallels between past experiences of Palestinian political movements and those currently unfolding,” Abdullah Al-Arian, associate professor of history at George Town University in Qatar (GU-Q), said in an email interview. “In fact, the PLO was originally established to give Arab states (and Egypt’s Nasser regime in particular) greater leverage over Palestinian political organising,” he added.

Founded at an Arab Summit meeting in Cairo in 1964 as the representative of the Palestinian people, the PLO became entrenched in nearby Jordan after Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank. Since Jordan had previously annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1951, Palestinian guerrilla fighters, the feda’eyeen, moved in droves to the Hashemite Kingdom where they continued to resist the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

Jordan’s Palestinian majority population gave rise to the PLO’s growing popularity in the Kingdom, which reached its peak in the successful joint military battle with the Jordanian military against Israeli invading forces in the border town of Al-Karama in 1968.  But the PLO’s growing influence and regional weight soon lead to a violent confrontation with the Jordanian state, which did not want to be the stage for guerrilla warfare with Israel.
Expelled from Jordan, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, his Fatah Movement, and the PLO coalition of which it was a part relocated to Lebanon in 1970, where they already had a presence.

In Lebanon, which, like Jordan, shares borders with Palestine and where a sizeable Palestinian population settled post-1948 and 1967, the PLO flourished, almost creating a state within a state and continuing to resist the Israeli occupation from South Lebanon. Eventually the PLO would get caught up in the crosshairs of Lebanon’s explosive Civil War in 1975.

Taking advantage of the country’s volatile situation, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and laid siege to the capital Beirut where the PLO’s headquarters were based. After months of international pressure and violence that rocked Lebanon, the PLO and thousands of feda’eyeen evacuated Lebanon in 1982.

Arafat and the PLO leadership boarded a ship from Tripoli on 30 August to their third and final destination in Tunis.

By then the Arab region’s balance of power had changed. Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Arafat’s greatest supporter, had died, and his successor, former president Anwar Al-Sadat, signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 that reversed Egypt’s position in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Although the PLO did not engage in attacks on Israel from its new base in Tunis, Israeli fighter jets bombed its headquarters in 1985, killing 70 people including 25 Tunisians. In 1988, Israel assassinated Arafat’s deputy Khalil Al-Wazir a year into the 1987 First Palestinian Intifada.

Having accepted negotiations as a means to establish Palestinian self-rule when he signed the 1993 Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority (PA), Arafat ended decades of exile when he flew to Gaza in July 1994 before moving to the PA’s Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank to kickstart the process that divided and virtually ended the PLO.

Meanwhile, the Islamist movement led by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in Gaza had founded Hamas in 1987 during the First Intifada. Hamas’ leadership remained solely inside the enclave until Yassin’s assassination in 2004. His successor, Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantisi, gave the green light to the movement’s elected Politburo chief Khaled Meshaal to change his mandate from being merely a representative of Hamas abroad to a more politically influential role.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Meshaal and the rest of the Hamas leadership in Kuwait relocated to Jordan, which became the group’s first official headquarters abroad. Unlike the PLO’s turbulent years in the Hashemite Kingdom in the 1970s, Hamas’ unarmed Politburo kept a low profile in Amman, with the armed wing of the Ezzedin Al-Qassam Brigades firmly established in Gaza.

A botched assassination attempt by Israeli agents on Meshaal in 1997 drew attention to the growing popularity of the 41-year-old Politburo chief, as the group’s resistance operations grew more daring in response to Israeli violence.

After Jordanian King Hussein’s death in 1999, his successor King Abdullah responded to Israeli and US pressure to expel the group from Amman which was designated as a terrorist organisation by the US.

The Hamas Politburo relocated to Damascus in Syria in 1999 among other Palestinian factions at the time. But Syria’s 2011 uprising, which evolved into a Civil War, meant that Hamas, which supported the Arab Spring uprisings and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendance to power in Egypt after 2011, would have had to take sides with President Bashar Al-Assad and his Iranian ally, which the group did not wish to do.

Hamas briefly established offices in Cairo from 2011 to 2013.

Relocated to Qatar in 2012, Hamas’ presence in the Gulf state aligned with Doha’s support of the Arab Spring uprisings. But it was only after the group’s 7 October Al-Aqsa Flood Operation that Qatari officials went on record to say that Hamas’ political office was set up in Doha following a request by the US to establish indirect communication with the group.

Qatar and Egypt have been leading the mediation efforts between Hamas and both Israel and the US for a hostage-exchange deal. One leaked proposal to evict Hamas leader in Gaza Yehia Al-Sinwar and Mohamed Al-Deif, head of the Al-Qassam Brigades, also from Gaza, in order to end the war, did not gain traction in the negotiations.

But the notion reflected a mindset that seemed to draw inspiration from the past of the PLO, when a defeated Arafat and his men departed from Lebanon to end the Israeli occupation of the country and the Palestinian armed struggle.
Abdel-Qader Yassin, a former Fatah official who was in Beirut at the time, witnessed Arafat’s departure before he himself boarded the last ship that sailed from Lebanon to Tartous in Syria in December 1982.

“The PLO were outsiders in Lebanon, but today the situation is entirely different,” Yassin, who now lives in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Evict Al-Sinwar and Al-Deif from Gaza? What about the 20,000 to 25,000 fighters in the enclave? Where would they go? But more importantly why should they leave their homes in Gaza?”

Although the PLO-Hamas analogy may sometimes be useful to understand developments, with Hamas’ Gaza leadership engaging in armed struggle against the Israeli occupation, the differences are many, he said.

While Qatar is hosting Hamas, its officials have reiterated that Doha is not party to the conflict and maintains the posture of a mediator, Yassin, who is also a historian and author of several books on Palestinian history and armed struggle, noted. “The Palestinian armed struggle in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1990s received international and Arab support. There was the Socialist Union and the former USSR, etc. This has completely changed.” After Egypt, Jordan signed an agreement with Israel in 1994 and in 2020 the UAE, Morocco, Sudan and Bahrain normalised relations with Tel Aviv. Saudi Arabia was poised to follow suit before the current war in Gaza.

Unlike the PLO, Hamas is firmly rooted in Palestinian territory. Unlike the PLO, Hamas is firmly rooted in Palestinian territory. Its central offices abroad are in Doha, but it also has an institutional presence in the West Bank and Lebanon, whereas Arafat, Fatah and the bulk of the feda’ayeen operated entirely from their host countries in exile.

Some analysts have suggested that the PLO's decision to enter into direct negotiations with Israel in the early 1990s resulted from its non-existent presence within the Palestinian territories, its weakened regional position, and its inability to find a stable environment from which to continue to pursue its organisational goals.

Another notable difference between the PLO and Hamas is the growing influence of regional non-Arab state actors like Iran and Turkey. Consequently, GU-Q’s Al-Arian observed, Islamist resistance movements like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have managed to “avoid total reliance on the precarious and vastly weakened state of Arab politics.”

“In the end, the Doha-based group has little influence on the leaders in Gaza,” he added.

Qatar is also home to the US Al-Udeid Air Base, the largest US military installation in the region with 10,000 troops.

“In weighing Qatar’s posture on hosting Hamas, it should not be lost on anyone that Doha is performing a role that was designated for it by other powers,” Yassin said, in a reference to the US.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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