An unusual visitor is being hosted by Lebanon's political leaders today: Khaled Meshaal, the head of the political bureau of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, is making the diplomatic rounds in Beirut. In the past, Hamas's primary interest had been in its activities within the Palestinian territories, and the organization had exerted only limited influence on the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
The visit puts Lebanon's pro-Western leaders, particularly Sunni leaders such as Saad Hariri, in an awkward situation. Hariri has been a vocal supporter of the Palestinian resistance, which is a prerequisite for maintaining his status as leader of Lebanese Sunnis. However, he cannot ignore the United States, which has propped up his government, and will not look kindly on Hariri's embrace of a leader they consider a terrorist.
So, why would Hamas leaders risk upsetting this delicate balance of political alliances by heading to Beirut?
It is possible that, as they feel more secure in their control of Gaza, they are looking to extend their influence to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. They would find ample opportunity in the Ain al-Helwe camp, which has been a consistent flashpoint for violence between Palestinians loyal to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and those belonging to the disparate Islamist groups in the camp. Meshaal specifically mentioned Ain al-Helwe after meeting with Lebanese officials, calling for "the launch of a Lebanese-Palestinian dialogue to discuss all the problems of Palestinian camps, Ain el-Helwe or others."
If Hamas is indeed looking to move in on the PLO's turf in Lebanon, don't expect much from the PLO-Hamas "reconciliation" talks scheduled to take place in Cairo on Nov. 10.
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