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Last Updated: Friday, 30 June 2006, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Exiled Hamas leaders under pressure
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Damascus

Hamas supporter in Gaza's Jebaliya refugee camp
Hamas commands wide support among Gaza refugees
It was just before 1200 in the Syrian capital and we were waiting for our contact.

We had been told to park our car at a crossroads in a middle-class suburb, not far from the city centre.

The sun was high and hot and we exchanged suspicious glances with the passengers of other cars.

Then a horn sounded behind us. An old Mercedes did a quick U-turn and sped off. This was our sign.

We were taken up into the hills that surround parts of Damascus, to a villa perched high above the city.

Our mobile phones were confiscated and all bags were thoroughly searched.

Anxiety

We had come to meet the deputy chairman of the militant Palestinian group, Hamas. Many of its members have been in exile in Syria for years.

The Israelis have killed leaders of the group before and few doubt that they will try again.

Mousa Abu Marzook
Mr Marzook insists Hamas' military wing is separate
Indeed Khaled Meshaal, thought to be the group's political boss in Damascus, was once poisoned by agents posing as tourists when he was living in Jordan.

Now Israel has accused him of orchestrating the capture of Cpl Gilad Shalit. Security is always tight here but there is certainly apprehension if not anxiety in the air.

The deputy chairman of Hamas is Mousa Abu Marzook.

He shrugged off the threat against him and his colleagues as nothing new. "This has been Israeli policy for more than 50 years," he said.

He denied that the leadership in Damascus had ordered the capture of Cpl Shalit. This was the work of the group's military brigade, not the political leadership, he said.

Distinction

Mr Marzook compared his group to the Irish Republican movement, saying Hamas was one organisation but with two parts - an armed wing and a political wing.

Damaged building following Israeli raid in  Gaza City 30 June
Israel has been bombing targets in Gaza for three days
It is an artificial distinction for some.

The Israelis, the Americans and many European countries think Hamas is essentially one organisation and that those who carry out attacks are following orders that emanate from the politicians, in particular those based here in Syria.

It is not just the Hamas leadership that is under pressure. Israeli warplanes flew over the Syrian president's summer residence this week.

The Israeli government accuses Syria of harbouring and supporting Palestinian militants.

Damascus denies the charge. The Syrian prime minister condemned the Israeli incursion and said the country would defend itself from any attack by Israel.

Some analysts believe that not only can Syria exert influence over Hamas but that it should.

Refugees

The country has been isolated internationally for some considerable time and the thinking goes that this would be a good time to try to improve its image by acting as a mediator.

Officially at least there is no sign of that although there have been some reports suggesting that President Assad has had a number of discussions with Hamas this week.

There are hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Many families fled during the 1948 and 1967 wars and they dream of one day being able to return.

They live in camps on the outskirts of the capital where large posters of Hamas figures and the former Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat are hung with pride.

There is plenty of support for the capture of the Israeli soldier here, and plenty of anger about the response.

But both Syrians and Palestinian refugees are apprehensive that the retaliation will be felt in Damascus.


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