What is behind the foreign tour by Hamas’s Haniya?

Egypt’s decision to allow the Hamas leader to travel signals progress on ceasefire negotiations with Israel.

Ismail Haniyeh
Hamas Chief Ismail Haniya embarked on his first foreign tour on December 2, 2019 [File: Reuters/Mohammed Salem]

In December, Ismail Haniya, chief of the Hamas political bureau, embarked on his first foreign tour since being elected to the position by the Shura Council of the movement in May 2017.

Since the Israeli siege was imposed on Gaza more than 13 years ago, officials from Gaza have only been able to travel abroad through Cairo.

This has given Egyptian authorities control over their movements, and in the past, they have declined repeated requests from Haniya to allow him to travel abroad.

His tour appears, therefore, to signal some development in Hamas-Egypt relations and regional dynamics. So far he has visited Turkey, Qatar and, most significantly, Iran. He may also be going to Russia.

This allows Haniya to push forward Hamas’s international relations and internal affairs.

Egypt’s conditions

Over the past two and a half years, the Egyptian authorities set various conditions in exchange for permitting Haniya to travel on official business. They requested, for example, that he opt out of visiting Iran, Qatar and Turkey and instead go to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. These were conditions Hamas was unwilling to meet as it did not want to give the impression that foreign powers were determining its political agenda.

For this reason, Cairo repeatedly refused to grant him permission to travel.

By early December, however, the situation had changed.

Haniya left the Gaza Strip on December 2 and upon arrival in Cairo held a series of meetings with Egyptian officials. According to London-based Al-Araby newspaper, the focus of the meetings was on negotiating a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, with the Egyptians admitting that the “deal of the century” put forward by the Trump administration had been set aside. At the conclusion of the meetings, he was informed that he could embark on his foreign tour.

Egypt’s permission for Haniya’s tour means Hamas likely acquiesced to certain conditions and made progress on some issues important to Egypt and its allies. According to sources I spoke to, the Egyptian authorities asked Haniya not to attend the Islamic Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which took place from December 18. He fulfilled this condition, but Hamas still sent a high-level delegation from the political bureau.

According my sources, this Egyptian request came as a result of pressure from Saudi Arabia which saw the conference as an alternative alliance to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation which it leads and a challenge to its leadership within the Islamic world.

But perhaps the main reason why Egypt let Haniya out this time is for him to have an opportunity to meet Hamas officials living abroad and discuss with them progress on the ceasefire with Israel. The negotiations for a long-term break in hostilities started in 2018, after Hamas and Israel reached an understanding on easing the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, allowing for some goods to be brought in and urgent issues, such as electricity and water supply and unemployment, to be addressed.

Hamas’s international relations

The first two stops on Haniya’s tour were Turkey and Qatar and he is expected to also visit Lebanon, Kuwait, Mauritania and Malaysia. There has been no confirmation of a visit to Russia as of yet.

In Turkey, the Hamas leader met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and discussed various issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, reconciliation efforts with Fatah and the situation in Gaza.

In Qatar, Haniyeh met with Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. According to media reports, some Hamas leaders may move from Qatar to Malaysia in the context of a potential reconciliation in the Gulf, between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This move would comply with the Saudi request that Doha does not host leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Hamas.

So far officials from Hamas have not commented on these claims. The movement has close ties with Malaysia, which Haniya is expected to work to solidify even further during his planned visit.

The third stop on Haniya’s tour was Iran. He visited Tehran and attended the funeral of General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who was assassinated by the US in Baghdad on Friday.

Haniya’s visit means Hamas has made a decision on its regional alliances after its temporary distancing from Iran and Hezbollah after the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war, in particular. It also means Tehran will continue its financial and military support for the movement. The visit goes against previous demands by Egypt (under pressure from Saudi Arabia) not to go to Iran. 

Another possible stop on Haniya’s tour is Russia, which had previously sent him an official invitation in 2018. Until now, the visit to Moscow has been delayed, first because Egypt prevented Haniya from travelling, but also because both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel exerted pressure on the Russian government to postpone it – both wanting to keep Hamas isolated.

Now that Haniya is out of Gaza, friends in Turkey, Iran and Qatar may facilitate his trip to Russia. Such a visit would constitute a momentous breakthrough in Hamas’s international relations.

Haniya may stay outside Gaza for as long as six months. According to media reports, he will likely stay in Qatar during this extended tour given the ease with which this will allow him to travel in the region. This will likely anger Cairo and Riyadh, given their strained relations with Doha.

Haniya’s foreign tour will include extensive consultations on important issues with Hamas leaders living abroad whom he has not seen since he was elected. Their inability to physically meet so far has impeded decision-making on some key issues, including the ceasefire negotiations with Israel, reconciliation with Fatah and Palestinian elections.

Haniya’s struggle to leave Gaza has revived an old debate inside Hamas on the merits of having the movement’s political, military and media leaders inside the Gaza Strip, which is besieged by land, sea and air. Their presence inside Gaza renders them subject to Israeli and Egyptian pressure and blackmail by preventing them from moving between Gaza and the outside world.

However long Haniya’s trip continues, it will be important for both Hamas’s domestic and foreign affairs. The tour will enable Hamas to solidify relations with its friends and repair relations with some countries with whom it does not have relations, including Kuwait and Jordan. It could also pave the way for a long-term truce with Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.