Hamas Eyes Malaysia as a Possible Operations Base
Malaysia has emerged as a potential external operations base for Hamas, if Turkey expels or restricts the group’s movements as a part of its rapprochement with Israel.
Turkey has in recent months deported Hamas activists, or refused them entry into the country, as it seeks to improve its troubled relations with Israel, according to Israeli press reports.
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, both leaders pledged to open a new chapter in the relationship.
The press reports suggested that the deported Hamas operatives had been on an Israeli list presented to Turkey, of individuals involved in the group’s armed activities in violation of their terms of residence in Turkey. Saleh al-Arouri, Hamas’ deputy political bureau head, and former military commander, reportedly was among those expelled.
Sources close to Hamas warned that a withdrawal of support for the group would undermine Turkish efforts to position itself as a champion of Muslim causes, at a time that it is competing for geopolitical leverage and religious soft power in the Muslim world.
Israel has long demanded that Turkey, which has granted Turkish citizenship to some Hamas leaders, crackdown on the group, as part of any improvement in relations.
Earlier this month, Al Mekalemeen, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated television station, said it was shutting down its operations in Turkey “due to circumstances that everyone knows about.” Al Mekalemeen did not specify the circumstances.
The anti-Islamist moves are part of broader Turkish efforts to improve relations with its Middle Eastern detractors, not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, where general-turned-president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi toppled a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government with Saudi and Emirati support.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE 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 totality rather than just its military wing as a terrorist organization.
Israel and Egypt have blockaded Gaza since 2005, when Israeli troops withdrew from the Strip. Hamas seized control of the region in 2007 in armed clashes with its rival Fatah, after narrowly winning elections in 2006.
In a twist of irony, Hamas retains a degree of support from Qatar, with Israel’s tacit agreement. Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’ most senior leaders, is believed to remain a resident in the Gulf state, where he publicly meets with visiting dignitaries like Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and Palestinians from the West Bank. The Hamas official has also met twice in the last three years with Qatari emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Nonetheless, Qatar is unlikely to allow the group to reestablish itself after the Gulf state forced it to move to Turkey as part of a 2014 deal that led to a return of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors to Doha. The ambassadors had been withdrawn in protest of Qatar’s alleged support of Islamists.
As a result, Malaysia has emerged as a potential base, because the group has nowhere to go in the Middle East if Turkey expels it, or severely curtails its activities and presence in the country.
If forced to find another base, Hamas’ choices are reminiscent of those Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat faced in 1982, when Israeli troops forced Palestinian fighters to leave Beirut. Tunisia, the PLO’s new home, seemed a long way from Palestine but was at least an Arab country. Malaysia would seem not only geographically but also culturally more distant 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 Organisation Malaysia (PCOM) but also others employed in universities and as professionals. So, anything short of a base — however conceived — would be OK,” said a Malaysian source.
Some analysts said the cultural organization, PCOM, was widely seen as Hamas’ “embassy,” in competition with Fatah’s official embassy. Malaysian foreign minister Sri Saifuddin Abdullah made a point last month of tweeting about a phone call with Haniyeh, the Qatar-based Hamas leader.
But the well-placed Malaysian source said that the country’s security forces may object to granting Hamas greater leeway in Malaysia, and security forces in some other Southeast Asian nations would likely support their Malaysian counterparts.
The security concerns would likely center on fears that an enhanced Hamas presence could turn Malaysia into a Middle Eastern battlefield.
Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s major Muslim-majority countries, have diplomatic ties with Israel. However, Malaysia is more strident in its opposition to the Jewish state, support of the Palestinians, and at times antisemitic statements, particularly by its former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
To be sure, it is still early days in the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel, which could also be affected by a new nuclear deal with Iran. Moreover, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned last month that “sustainable relations” between Israel and Turkey would require Israel to “respect the international law on the Palestinian issue.” Cavusoglu did not spell out what he issues he was referring to, but is expected to visit Israel later this month.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.