Hamas' exiled politburo chief Khaled Mashaal kissed the ground as he arrived in the Gaza Strip on Friday, ending 45 years of exile from the Palestinian territories.
Mashaal 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 after its recent war with Israel.
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Accompanied by his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, and other senior figures, Mashaal drove from Egypt through the Rafah crossing and then got out and kissed the ground before embracing Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
"This is my third birth. I was born in 1956, and my second birth was when I survived the assassination attempt initiated by (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu," Mashaal told reporters. "But God was stronger than him, and I hope Allah will grant me martyrdom in Gaza.
"My fourth birth will be on the day Palestine is liberated. Today it is Gaza and tomorrow it will be Ramallah, then Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa," he added.
Haniyeh said, "This is a historic moment for the Palestinian people and a victory for both the people and Gaza."
Mashaal kisses the ground in Gaza (Photo: Reuters)
The trip is a historic one for Mashaal, who was born in the West Bank but has never visited Gaza. He went into exile after the 1967 Six-Day War.
He had been due to visit Gaza at the start of the year, but the trip never took place.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement that Mashaal is to meet members of different Palestinian factions and residents of Gaza, "as well as representatives of the families of martyrs, prisoners and those injured in the last Israeli aggression against Gaza."
Preparations for Mashaal's visit in Gaza (Photo: Reuters)
The visit, Abu Zuhri added, was "a fruit of the victory of the resistance over the occupation."
Mashaal's wife arrived in Gaza late Thursday afternoon ahead of her husband, officials at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt said.
Hamas preparations for Mashaal's visit (Photo: Reuters)
The Hamas leader landed in Cairo on Thursday and arrived at the Rafah crossing shortly before 11 am Friday. A source in Gaza said Mashaal will be hosted by Haniyeh and visit the homes of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed by Israel in 2004, and top commander Ahmed Jabari, who was killed in an airstrike at the onset of Operation Pillar of Defense.
Security forces were out en masse to secure the top-level visit. Hundreds of officers, including members of Hamas's armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, have been deployed in areas Mashaal is expected to visit.
Hamas expressed fears that Israel may try to assassinate Mashaal during his visit to the coastal enclave. "Israel is like a wounded tiger looking for some sort of victory in an attempt to maintain its dignity," a Hamas figure said.
Mashaal's landmark visit comes two weeks after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza fighting in four years, which included the killing of Jabari as well as hundreds of Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets and an equal number of Gaza rockets fired into Israel.
Mashaal has already survived an Israeli attempt on his life. Following a terror attack at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market in 1997, which was carried out by Hamas terrorists, the Israeli government ordered Mossad to assassinate Mashaal. On September 25 of that same year two Mossad operatives approached the Hamas leader outside his office in Amman, Jordan and injected lethal poison into his ear.
Mashaal's driver and bodyguard apprehended the Mossad agents, who were placed under arrest. Immediately after the incident, Jordanian King Hussein demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turn over the antidote for the poison. At first Netanyahu refused, but as the incident grew in political significance, US President Bill Clinton intervened and urged Netanyahu to turn over the antidote.
Then-Mossad chief Danny Yatom flew to Jordan, bringing with him an antidote to treat Mashaal.
To secure the agents' release, Israel also agreed to release a number of Hamas terrorists and leaders, including Sheikh Yassin, from Israeli prisons.
On Thursday, workers set up the stage for the Hamas anniversary rally, including a 13-meter-high (43-foot-high) replica of an M-75, a missile Hamas has fired deep into Israel. "Made in Gaza," was written on the rocket.
Mashaal, whose family left the West Bank when he was a child, grew up in Kuwait and moved to Qatar this year after abandoning his longtime base in Syria.
His visit coincides with the last stretch of secret internal Hamas elections that began seven months ago.
Mashaal, who has headed Hamas' decision-making political bureau since 1996, said earlier this year he is not seeking reelection, but some suggested his Gaza visit could signal a change of heart and an attempt to mollify Gaza Hamas hardliners with whom he clashed months ago.
Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri said he believes the main purpose of the trip is an attempt supported by Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to get Mashaal reelected. "Egypt, Qatar and Turkey want Khaled Mashaal, simply because he is a moderate and can get things done between the West and the Islamists," said al-Masri.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank expressed hope that Mashaal's visit would help finalize the Palestinian political unity deal.
Israel, which is reluctantly coming to terms with the shifting Palestinian power balance, mostly kept silent on the visit. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among various Hamas leaders.
"Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," said the spokesman, Yigal Palmor.
AP, AFP and Reuters contributed to the report
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