RAMALLAH, West Bank - Alarmed by bloody unrest in Syria, the extremist group Hamas has pulled out many of its lower-level cadres from its Damascus headquarters and made contingency plans to move its leadership to sites across the Middle East, senior Hamas members have told the Associated Press.
The Hamas members say the group remains appreciative of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and there is no immediate intention to abandon their base in Damascus. But they confirmed that dozens of low- and midlevel members have already left Syria as the security situation grows more precarious.
"Most of Hamas has left Damascus. We have a Plan B for leaving if things deteriorate," said a senior Hamas official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the inner workings of the secretive group.
Hamas, an Iranian-backed Palestinian group, has been based in Syria for more than a decade. Assad has allowed Hamas, branded a terrorist group by Israel and the West, to use his territory for military training, and provided a valuable headquarters in the heart of the Arab world.
The uprising in Syria has put Hamas in a difficult place. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed in violence since March, and Hamas is wary of being associated with the government crackdown.
If Hamas does pull out completely, the move could force it to change how it operates because the leaders would be dispersed across the region and their new hosts may not give them as much freedom. Hamas' supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, for instance, is set to go to Qatar, a gulf state with close ties to the United States.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas leader in the group's Gaza stronghold, says Hamas "hopes that Syria will get out of its difficult internal crisis through a political solution ending further bloodshed in the country."
The Arab Spring uprisings have been a mixed blessing for Hamas. On one hand, allies such as Syria are in trouble. On the other, Islamic groups have made strong gains by peaceful elections. While Hamas leaders say they haven't abandoned their dream of destroying Israel, they also seem to realize that they can advance their agenda by nonviolent means.
In recent days, Mashaal said Hamas would focus on nonviolent protests against Israel, though he refused to renounce violence. He also signaled that Hamas might be willing to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. Hamas has in the past endorsed the 1967 lines as the first stage toward eliminating Israel.