JERUSALEM and RAMALLAH — The Israeli government claimed Tuesday 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.”
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 the Gaza Strip angrily dismissed the Israeli claims.
Izzat Rishq, a top aide to Mr. Mashaal, said the claim was wrong.
“There is no basis of truth about brother Khaled Mashaal leaving Doha [the Qatari capital]. We are in Doha now,” he said.
‘We expect the Turkish government to act … in a similar way’
Hamas spokesman Hossam Badran in Qatar and Salah Bardawil, a Hamas official in Gaza, also said the report was false.
In the Turkish capital Ankara, the Foreign Ministry said it had no information on a Qatari decision or plans by Mr. Mashaal to relocate to Turkey.
Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, are bitter enemies. They 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, the hardline Islamists have faced growing isolation in the region after disputes with their longtime sponsors, Syria and Iran, and the downfall of the close ally, former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military. Mr. 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 last year to the formation of a unity government led by its rival, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. 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.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter, the official 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 Persian Gulf state that has allowed Mr. 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.
Some Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members were forced to leave Qatar last year after the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha. The three Gulf countries had accused Qatar of interfering in their domestic affairs and of failing to uphold a security pact. The diplomats 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 pan-Arab 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.
The Associated Press