JERUSALEM -- When Khaled Meshaal crosses into the Gaza Strip at noon today, it will be the Hamas leader's first trip to the coastal territory. It also will be a symbol of how far the Palestinian Islamist movement, which both Israel and the United States have branded a terrorist organization, has come since its inception in 1987.
Mr. Meshaal, often called "the exiled Hamas leader," assumed control of the group in 2004, after its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated by Israel. He has traveled widely to help Hamas garner support across the Arab world and recently has helped secure the diplomatic support of key Arab states in the region.
But no visit will be as significant as Mr. Meshaal's trip to Gaza this weekend. Regional analysts call it a "watershed moment."
"Hamas feels the wind of change beneath their wings," said Jonathan Spyer, a senior researcher at the prestigious Interdisciplinary Center, a private university in the Israeli coastal city of Herzylia. "Khaled Meshaal's visit to Gaza is significant. It means that Meshaal is back in the game."
Nevertheless, the rival West Bank-based Palestinian Authority received a diplomatic boost Thursday when Jordan's King Abdullah II became the first head of state to visit the West Bank since last week's vote by the U.N. General Assembly upgrading the status of the Palestinians to nonmember observer state. It was a gesture of support that also underlined the importance of the vote to Jordan, according to analysts.
The king's arrival by helicopter in the West Bank city of Ramallah also signaled an effort to maintain some balance and stability in a region in turmoil.
Jordan's foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, who accompanied the king, told reporters that the king had come because he wanted to be "the first one to congratulate [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud Abbas] and the Palestinian people for their strategic decision at the United Nations," according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.
Jordan, a country of 6 million people with a sizable portion of Palestinian origin, is an important U.S. ally in the region and maintains a peace treaty with Israel. The United States and Israel strongly opposed the Palestinian U.N. bid and voted against it.
As for Mr. Meshaal's impending visit to Gaza, the Hamas leader has twice announced his retirement from political life in the past year, leading many to speculate that a rift had grown between the local Hamas leadership in Gaza and their exiled leadership abroad. Mr. Meshaal's visit to Gaza indicates, however, that the movement is indeed united, Mr. Spyer said.
"It's not hard to see why. If you look at the process of what used to be called the Arab Spring, you can see what is really a movement of old, decrepit nationalist movements being replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood," Mr. Spyer said.
Hamas, which sees itself as the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, saw its influence grow when Mohammed Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood official, won Egypt's presidency in June.
Part of a cease-fire deal negotiated by Egypt last month called for a truce in fighting between Israel and Hamas as well as an end to targeted assassinations. It was the fear that Israel would target Mr. Meshaal as it had Yassin that had kept Mr. Meshaal from visiting Gaza. With the cease-fire in effect, that impediment was gone.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Thursday that Israel has no say over who enters Gaza from Egypt. "We have no position on different individuals within Hamas," he said when asked about the Mashaal trip. "Hamas is Hamas is Hamas."
Hamas "announces the visit of Khaled Meshaal, head of the political bureau, tomorrow, December 7, to participate in the celebration of the movement's 25th anniversary," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement Thursday.
Mr. Meshaal's visit will include a tour of Gaza, as well as meetings with the families of those killed and injured during the recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, which began Nov. 14 with Israel's targeted killing of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jaabari.
Mr. Meshaal, who was born in the West Bank village of Silwad in 1956, moved to Kuwait after the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai. He later moved to Jordan, where his association with Hamas began.
His role in the organization has shifted over the years. At times he was considered to be at the head of the decision-making process for Hamas, while at other times he appeared to have been sidelined by the Gaza-based Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh.
Israel will be watching the visit closely to try to determine whether Mr. Meshaal's influence in Hamas has grown. In the past, he was considered a moderating influence who tried to lead Hamas toward reconciliation with the Western-backed Fatah movement that governs the West Bank.
The New York Times and Associated Press contributed.