Meshaal visits Gaza, ending long exile

December 08, 2012 - 1:45:43 am

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (centre) and Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyah (right), wave to the crowd surrounded by security guards after Meshaal’s arrival through the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, Gaza Strip, yesterday.

GAZA: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal ended decades of exile from Palestinian land yesterday with a triumphal first ever visit to the Gaza Strip that underscored the Islamist group’s growing confidence following its latest conflict with Israel.

After passing through the Egyptian border crossing, Meshaal knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, offering up a prayer of thanks. He was then greeted in the warm December sun by dozens of officials from an array of competing factions.

Meshaal will spend barely 48 hours in the coastal enclave and attend a mass rally today 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.

Israel rejects Hamas’ assertion that it won the conflict, which killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis.

Speaking to reporters, Meshaal said his arrival in Gaza was like a rebirth that followed on from his natural birth in the nearby West Bank in 1956 and a second that was his narrow escape from an Israeli assassination squad in 1997.

“I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine,” he said, clearly moved by his reception, with uniformed police breaking ranks to try and kiss his hand. 

“Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa,” he said. Ramallah is in the West Bank, while the latter cities, which have large Arab populations, are in modern-day Israel.

Later yesterday, he was 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, who was killed in a similar air strike last month.

Hamas denied seeking guarantees via Egyptian contacts with Israel that Meshaal would not be targeted for assassination in Gaza. There was massive security for his arrival, with gun-toting, black-masked guards from the Hamas military wing patrolling the streets in open-topped trucks and motorbikes.

Meshaal, 56, had been widely understood not to have set foot in the Palestinian territories since he left his native West Bank with his family aged 11. However in his speech he indicated he had returned for a visit as a teenager in 1975. Hamas has ruled the tiny Gaza Strip and its 1.7 million population since 2007, when it won a brief civil war with its secular rivals Fatah, which still controls the occupied West Bank. Israel had pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

The Palestinian movement’s founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel but its leaders have at times indicated a willingness to negotiate a prolonged truce in return for a withdrawal to the lines established ahead of the 1967 war, when Israel seized East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

Hamas continues to say that it will not recognise the Jewish state officially, and it is viewed as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and most Western governments.