Alarmed by bloody unrest in Syria, the Hamas militant group has pulled out many of its lower-level cadres from its Damascus headquarters and made contingency plans to move its leadership to locations across the Middle East, senior Hamas members have told The Associated Press.
The Hamas members say the group remains appreciative of Syrian leader Bashar 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 increasingly 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.
But the uprising in Syria has put Hamas in a difficult place. The U.N. 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 the way it operates since the leaders would become 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 U.S. Other leaders would go to Egypt, another American ally, while others would end up in Lebanon, Turkey or the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
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." He said there has been "no decision" to leave Damascus.
The plan is the latest sign of change in the Islamic group amid the convulsions of the Arab Spring across the Middle East the past year. The uprisings have been a mixed blessing for Hamas. On one hand, allies like Syria are in trouble. On the other hand, Islamic groups have made strong gains through peaceful elections. While Hamas leaders say they haven't abandoned their dream of destroying Israel, they also seem to be realizing that they can advance their agenda through nonviolent means.
In recent days, Mashaal said Hamas would turn 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.
Hamas also last week began the process of joining the Palestine Liberation Organization as it reconciles with the rival Fatah movement. The Fatah-dominated PLO has long sought a political settlement with Israel. Joining the PLO could give Hamas a voice, and possibly veto, in future peace efforts.
Israeli officials dismiss any suggestion that Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in suicide bombings, rocket attacks and other violence, has changed. They cite the hardline speeches delivered at Hamas' 24th anniversary celebrations earlier this month, when speakers proudly called for "armed resistance" and the destruction of Israel.
"Unfortunately there is no evidence that Hamas has in any way moderated its extremist agenda," said government spokesman Mark Regev.
Barhoum said the group has not abandoned its ideology. Instead, he said it has merely changed its tactics as it adjusts to the times.
"There is a new environment around us," he said. "That doesn't mean Hamas is giving up its rights and its clear program as a resistance faction."
Hamas began its transformation into a political movement in 2006, when it defeated Fatah in Palestinian legislative elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
A brief power-sharing arrangement disintegrated into violence the following year, leaving Hamas in control of Gaza and the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in charge of the West Bank. The sides are now holding reconciliation talks and hope to hold new elections next year.
In Gaza, Hamas on Tuesday marked the third anniversary of an Israeli military offensive in the seaside strip. The offensive, launched in response to months of intense rocket barrages, killed some 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and caused widespread damage. Thirteen Israelis also died in the fighting.
At memorial ceremonies, speaker after speaker voiced their support for continued armed confrontation with Israel. After suffering heavy losses in the fighting, Hamas has largely maintained a cease-fire with Israel the past three years. Still, it is believed to have restocked its arsenal with more powerful weapons.
But Raed Nearat, a political science professor in the West Bank who is close to Hamas, said that behind the rhetoric, Hamas is in the midst of a significant change.
He said the revolutions across the Middle East, as well as elections that have voted heavily in favor of Islamic movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, have emboldened Hamas.
"The Arab Spring has made Hamas much more confident, pragmatic and open," he said. "It's much more confident now that it can lead."
This week, the prime minister of the Gaza government, Ismail Haniyeh, left the territory for the first time since the 2007 takeover on an official tour of the Muslim world. His first stop was Egypt, with planned visits to Sudan, Qatar, Bahrain, Tunisia and Turkey.
Hamas officials say the goal of the trip is to improve ties with Muslim countries swept up in the uprisings shaking the Arab world. In Egypt, Haniyeh met with the leader of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest winner in the first parliamentary elections since the Feb. 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak.