Hamas prime minister backs Syrian protests against Assad

Ismail Haniyeh becomes first leader of Palestinian group to publicly rebuke patron as he hails bravery of protesters

Gaza’s Hamas prime minister has expressed support for Syrian protesters seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

Ismail Haniyeh’s comments were the first time a senior leader of the Palestinian group has publicly rebuked its longtime patron.

Speaking after Friday prayers at Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque, Haniyeh said Hamas commended “the brave Syrian people that are moving toward democracy and reform”.

Assad has long hosted and supported leaders of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip, but the group has significantly reduced the presence of its exiled leaders in Syria since the start of the uprising against the Syrian regime 11 months ago.

Some of the top Hamas leaders now spend most of their time in Qatar, Egypt and Lebanon as the group tries to distance itself from Assad’s brutal crackdown on opponents.

Haniyeh’s speech was another sign of Hamas’s drift away from its long-term backers Iran and Syria, as it finds new allies in the region. Its isolation has eased since its parent movement, the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, gained political influence in the region – including in Egypt – in the wake of the Arab spring uprisings.

Al-Azhar is a major religious institution in the Muslim world, and the platform given to Haniyeh was another show of support for Hamas.

Haniyeh asked the Muslim and Arab world to defend Jerusalem against what he portrayed as Israeli attempts to weaken the Arab identity of the city. He recited an Arabic poem that says that the path to Jerusalem starts in Cairo.

Several Brotherhood members stood by Haniyeh as he addressed thousands of worshippers crammed into the mosque, pledging support for the Palestinians and for Hamas.

The crowd cheered when Haniyeh said Hamas would not recognise Israel.

Hamas is shunned by the west because it refuses to recognise Israel or renounce violence. However, its leader, Khaled Mashaal, has said he is ready to embrace non-violent protests as part of reconciliation with the rival Fatah movement of the western-backed Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

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