JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli government on Tuesday claimed Qatar had expelled the leader of the Hamas militant group, in what would be a significant diplomatic victory for Israel. Hamas officials denied the claims as "baseless."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying it "welcomes Qatar's decision to expel the head of the Hamas political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, to Turkey." It said the Qatari decision came after heavy diplomatic pressure from Israel.
"We expect the Turkish government to act responsibly in a similar way," it added.
Hamas officials in both Qatar and Gaza angrily dismissed the Israeli claims.
Izzat Rishq, a top aide to Mashaal, said the claim was wrong. "There is no basis of truth about brother Khaled Mashaal leaving Doha. We are in Doha now," he told The Associated Press.
Hamas spokesman Hossam Badran in Qatar and Salah Bardawil, a Hamas official in Gaza, also told the AP the report was false.
In Turkey, the Foreign Ministry said it had no information on a Qatari decision or plans by Mashaal to relocate to Turkey.
Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, are bitter enemies. The sides fought a 50-day war last summer that killed more than 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza and 72 people on the Israeli side.
If the claim is true, the expulsion would mark a major setback for Hamas. In recent years, Hamas has faced growing isolation in the region after disputes with its longtime sponsors, Syria and Iran, and the downfall of its close ally, former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military. Mashaal moved to Qatar after the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011.
Facing diplomatic isolation and deep financial problems, Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, reluctantly agreed to the formation of a unity government led by its rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, last year. But the group remains in firm control of the seaside territory.
Asked about the Hamas denial, an Israeli official said the government had received "serious and reliable information" from "official channels" that the expulsion order had been granted. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, refused to say whether Qatar had delivered the news directly. Israel used to have a diplomatic office in Qatar and still maintains low-level relations with the country.
There was no immediate comment from Qatar, a wealthy Gulf state that has allowed Mashaal to set up a base there.
Under a deal reached with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia late last year, Qatar agreed to a number of foreign policy directives that are largely believed to be related to its support of Islamist groups throughout the region. The details of the Gulf reconciliation agreement have not been made public.
A number of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members were forced to leave Qatar last year after the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain withdrew ambassadors from Doha. The three Gulf countries had accused Qatar of interfering in their domestic affairs and of failing to uphold a security pact. Ambassadors were reinstated after a deal was reached in November.
The following month Al Jazeera's live channel dedicated to coverage of Egypt was shut down. Egypt had accused the Qatar-based-and-funded Al-Jazeera news network of bias against the new government and of supporting the Brotherhood. The network has denied the charges and demanded Egypt free three journalists imprisoned there from its English-language channel.
Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Associated Press writers Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Suzan Fraser in Anakra, Turkey, and Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.