GAZA - Syria's crackdown on government opponents has deeply embarrassed Hamas, which is anxious not to anger its backers in Damascus while at the same time hoping not to alienate its supporters at home.
Syrian President Bashar Assad's five-month purge of protesters has gathered pace since the start of August, causing thousands of Palestinians to flee a refugee camp in the city of Latakia this week as Syrian security forces attacked the area.
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Ordinary Palestinians watching from a distance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been swift to denounce the violence, but the Islamist group Hamas has itself said nothing and tried to prevent public displays of anti-Syrian sentiment.
"If they keep silent they will score points with the Syrian regime,"
said political analyst Talal Okal, explaining that such a stance could
be politically costly in the Palestinian territories, especially in
Gaza, which is ruled by Hamas.
"The people will not accept it and will see it as a betrayal of the Palestinian refugees in Syria," he added.
A number of Hamas leaders, including its chief, Khaled Meshaal, moved to
Syria after they were expelled from Jordan in 1999. From there they
hone their strategy against Israel and are relatively free to move
around the region.
But the Sunni Muslim group's dependence on Assad, who is from Syria's
minority Alawite community, is proving a boon for some Hamas' rivals,
who have been highly critical of the violence that rocked the Al Raml
"This is a crime against humanity," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the West
Bank-based secretary general of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
His view was shared by many in Hamas's backyard.
"We have been shocked... the Syrian president does not deserve to lead
Syria," said Ahmed Hejazi, 34, who, like almost half of all adults in
Gaza, is unemployed.
"What does he expect after the killing he had committed? Does he expect his people to take him into their arms?"
Rights organizations say at least 1,700 civilians have been killed by Syrian security forces since protests erupted in March.
A Gaza youth organization tried to stage an anti-Assad rally on Tuesday
evening, but plain-clothed Hamas security police showed up ahead of time
and ordered journalists away. They briefly detained a handful of youths
who tried to protest.
Hamas, which has built a reputation as a liberation movement among its supporters, is clearly uneasy about the situation.
It has so far offered only a lukewarm statement of support for the
Syrian hierarchy and refused to stage pro-Assad events in the refugee
camps. Diplomatic sources have said it is also debating in private its
continued presence in Damascus.
Leaders of the group have publicly denied suggestions they might leave,
but rumors regularly surface, with suggestions that some, if not all,
Hamas officials could move to Qatar, Turkey or Sudan. Egypt has refused
to allow the group to open an office in Cairo, diplomatic sources said.
Hamas is not the only Palestinian faction that is close to Syria. Other
smaller groups, some of them aligned to Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas, have also stayed mute despite the crackdown.
"This is an absolutely shameful and hypocritical position that only has
one explanation; these factions are still betting on (the survival of)
the bloody regime," said Palestinian political analyst Hani Habib.
However, none face quite the same predicament as Hamas, and any further
upswing in the violence could force a change of policy. "The interest of
Palestinian factions has to be to their people," said Habib.