Amman: A high-profile visit to Jordan by the leader of Hamas has revived contacts with the Palestinian group, but Jordan will not lift a ban on its activities there, a senior Jordanian official said yesterday.
Khalid Mesha'al's visit is part of Jordan's efforts to engage with previously shunned Islamists, who have been gaining ground across the region in Arab Spring uprisings.
"It will only break the ice, following years of estrangement," said the official, who was attending talks between Mesha'al and Jordan's King Abdullah II, "but Hamas will not be allowed to reopen its offices in Jordan."
Re-establishing contact with Hamas also positions Jordan to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mesha'al holds a Jordanian passport, but the kingdom expelled him and four other Hamas leaders in 1999 for "illicit and harmful" activities, forcing Mesha'al to set up camp in exile in Syria, from where he has led his group's political bureau.
With the harsh Syrian government crackdown on protesters — including some Palestinians in Syria — Mesha'al is looking for a new place to operate.
Since then, Mesha'al was allowed to enter Jordan twice on humanitarian grounds — in August 2009 to attend his father's funeral, and again last October to visit his ailing mother.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mesha'al said Hamas was eager to develop "close and unique relations" with Jordan. He suggested more meetings could follow.
"Hamas also cares for Jordan's security and stability," he said.
Mesha'al also acknowledged "limits and ceilings" in the relationship, which he said Hamas "respects," but he did not say if the group asked the king to reopen its offices here.
He also blasted Israel saying, "Hamas stands firm against Israel's schemes to turn Jordan into a substitute homeland. Jordan is Jordan and Palestine is Palestine. We insist on restoring Palestinian rights," he said.
The Jordanian official said Mesha'al is accompanied by four other top Hamas politicians, including the Hamas No 2, Mousa Abu Marzouq.
The visit was arranged by the crown prince of Qatar, which is helping Hamas find a new home.
The official said the talks opened immediately in an Amman palace and later continued over a luncheon banquet.
Hamas, which took over the Gaza Strip violently in 2007, opposes a peace deal with Israel. Jordan's powerful opposition Islamists, who are ideologically close to Hamas, called Meshaal's visit "historic."
"The meeting today [Sunday] is historic. Qatari mediation is supporting the palace's efforts to reformulate Jordan-Hamas relations in line with national interests," the Muslim Brotherhood said on its website.
Jordan, a key US Mideast ally, has signed a peace treaty with Israel. It strongly advocates a negotiated settlement to the lingering Arab-Israeli conflict.
A revival of contacts with Hamas would also allow Jordan to mediate between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the moderate Fatah faction and Hamas — his arch foe since 2007. Egypt has been trying to broker an agreement between both sides.
Relations between Hamas and Jordan have been strained since 1999, when the authorities expelled Mesha'al and three other Hamas members after the group was accused of threatening the kingdom's security and stability.
Jordan-Hamas ties soured further in 2006 after Amman alleged that members of the group had smuggled weapons into the kingdom from neighbouring Syria.
Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, a former International Criminal Court judge, said when he formed his government in November that the expulsion of Hamas leaders from Jordan had been "a constitutional and political error."
Meshaal survived a 1997 assassination attempt in Amman by by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad.