Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal arrived in the Gaza Strip on Friday, ending 45 years of exile with a visit that underscored the Islamist terror group’s growing confidence following a recent conflict with Israel.
After passing through the Egyptian border crossing, Meshaal knelt on the ground to offer a prayer of thanks and was then greeted by dozens of officials from an array of competing Palestinian factions lined up to meet him in warm December sun.
Meshaal will spend barely 48 hours in the coastal enclave and attend a mass rally on Saturday that has been billed as both a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and a “victory” celebration following the November fighting.
“All Palestinians will eventually return to their homeland. Khaled Meshaal is returning after a victory,” said veteran Hamas strategist Mahmoud Al-Zahar.
The 56-year-old Meshaal left the nearby West Bank as a young boy in 1967 and, before Friday, had never set foot in the largely isolated Gaza, which has been governed by Hamas since a brief, 2007 civil war against its Fatah secular rivals.
Later on Friday, he is expected to visit the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, as well as that of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, the group’s military commander killed in an Israeli strike last month.
Israel tried and failed to kill Meshaal himself in 1997 in a botched Mossad mission in Jordan. Although there was no indication he might be targeted again, Hamas laid on massive security for his arrival, with heavily armed men, some wearing black masks, patrolling the border area.
Meshaal ran Hamas from exile in Damascus from 2004 until January this year when he quit the Syrian capital because of Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad’s war against Sunni Muslim rebels. He now divides his time between Qatar and Cairo.
His abrupt departure from Syria initially weakened his position within Hamas: ties with Damascus and Tehran had made him important, but with those links damaged or broken, rivals based within Gaza had started to assert their authority.
However, the exiled leader regained the initiative in the November war, working closely with Egypt to secure the truce, and although he says he plans to stand down soon few here expect him to carry through on his pledge.
The highlight of his visit will be an open-air rally on Saturday, which Hamas will use to proclaim victory in its eight-day conflagration with Israel that killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis. It ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
A large stage has been set up in Gaza city, complete with a huge model of the homemade M75 rocket that was fired at both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in last month’s war.
Israel says its air strikes not only killed Jaabari, but also severely depleted Hamas’s weapons stockpile.
However, the fighting clearly boosted Hamas’s political standing in the region, winning it the support of many regional powers, such as Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, who dispatched senior delegations to Gaza in a rare and public display of solidarity.
The Arab Spring revolts of the last two years have brought friends of Hamas to power across the Arab world, above all Egypt’s new President Mohamed Mursi, whose long-banned Muslim Brotherhood is spiritual mentor to Hamas.
Saturday’s rally is not being held on the exact date of Hamas’s founding, but on the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel.
That is being seen as an overture to other factions and a hint of a new willingness to seek reconciliation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank.
“There is a new mood that allows us to achieve reconciliation,” Meshaal told Reuters in an interview last Friday from Qatar, where he has set up home since leaving Syria earlier this year.
Hamas leaders have said in recent years the movement could live peacefully alongside Israel if it wins a state on all Palestinian land occupied by Israel in 1967, although the Islamist group’s 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and for recovering all of British mandate Palestine.
Various Hamas officials have at times indicated a willingness to negotiate a truce, possibly decades long, with Israel. But Hamas continues to say that it will not recognise the Jewish state officially, and it is viewed as a terror group by Israel and most Western governments.