JERUSALEM — Where in the world is Khaled Meshal?
Meshal is the chairman of the political bureau of the Islamist militant movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has fought three wars in six years with Israel. The Israelis tried to assassinate him in 1997.
“Sources close to Hamas” told CNN that Meshal was expelled Monday from the oil-rich Persian Gulf state of Qatar, where he has been living in comfortable exile since 2012.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Tuesday applauded the move to boot Meshal — and quickly congratulated itself for successfully pressing Qatar to oust the Hamas leader. The Israelis said Meshal was headed to Turkey.
But at least three Hamas officials swiftly denied that Meshal has been ordered out of the gulf nation.
Qatar has lavished support on Hamas and paid for massive public works projects in Gaza, which is isolated from the world by tough travel and trade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. But Qatar has recently been trying to reconcile with Egypt, which asked that Qatar limit its support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group, including its offshoot, Hamas.
“There is no truth to reports by certain media concerning the departure of Khaled Meshal from Qatar,” Hamas official Ezzat al-Rishq wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri in Gaza called reports of Meshal's expulsion from Qatar “totally false.”
Another Hamas official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not have permission to make statements to the news media, told The Washington Post that Hamas might be required to restrict its activities in Qatar — meaning no more news conferences or council meetings — but that Meshal was still in the country.
Hamas has been branded a terror organization by the United States and Israel. A European Union court last month removed Hamas from its list of terror groups, but that ruling is being appealed.
If Meshal has been forced to quit Qatar and take up residency in Turkey, it means that Hamas faces ever greater isolation, even in the Arab world.
Hamas was born from the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement. It seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections. Hamas agreed last year to participate in a unity government with the Palestinian Authority, but the group has not relinquished any real power in the coastal enclave.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and his government have banned the Muslim Brotherhood and taken a harsh stance against Hamas, destroying smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza and frequently shutting the official border crossing, as they quietly work alongside the Israeli military against insurgents in the Sinai Peninsula, who Cairo claims are supported by Hamas.
On Tuesday, Israeli diplomats took credit for reports that Meshal was leaving Qatar.
“The Foreign Ministry, led by minister Avigdor Lieberman, has advanced various moves to cause Qatar to carry out this step and stop aiding Hamas, directly and indirectly,” the Foreign Ministry message read. “To this end, minister Lieberman and the ministry’s professional staff have acted in overt and covert tracks with Qatar and other states. We expect the Turkish government to now follow suit.”
If Meshal is on the road again, it would not be the first time he has had to pack his suitcase in a hurry.
Born in the West Bank when it was under Jordanian control, Meshal later moved with his family to Kuwait, where he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and became a founding member of Hamas.
In 1999, he was expelled from Jordan. In 2012, he fled Damascus after the start of the Syrian civil war and took up a life of luxury as a political exile in the oil-flush Persian Gulf monarchy of Qatar.
Meshal — whom Israeli intelligence agents reportedly tried to assassinate in 1997 by injecting poison into his ear — made his first and only visit to Gaza in 2012 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas. During a fiery speech, he vowed that Hamas would never recognize the state of Israel and called for an Islamic Palestinian state on the territory of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Last month, Meshal made a surprise appearance at a rally for Turkey’s governing party, where he heaped praise on the Turkish leadership and pressed for closer ties between Turks and the Palestinians.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza City contributed to this report.