Hamas leader makes his first visit to Gaza

Exiled for years, he arrives for group's 25th anniversary

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RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- The long-exiled leader of the militant group Hamas entered Gaza for the first time Friday, a symbolically powerful visit that sought to reinforce Hamas' contention that it was victorious in its eight-day violent clash with Israel.

For Khaled Mashaal, 56, whom the Israelis tried to assassinate in Jordan in 1997, it was a triumphant day; Hamas fighters, armed with rifles and wearing balaclavas, lined the streets where he was to travel. He entered from Egypt, through the Rafah crossing, an indication of a new alliance with Cairo after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, an avowed adversary of Hamas.

"Gaza, with its martyrs, cannot be described in words," he said as he arrived here, with tears in his eyes. "There are no words to describe Gaza, to describe the heroes, the martyrs, the blood, the mothers who lost their sons."

Mr. Mashaal, who has spent years in exile and now spends most of his time in Qatar, had never before been to Gaza but said he felt as if he was returning because "Gaza has always been in my heart."

Mr. Mashaal's visit reflected the changes that have swept the region since the Tunisian revolution, which began in December 2010 and ignited the Arab Spring uprisings.

Mr. Mashaal was permitted to cross the Egyptian border now that allies of the Muslim Brotherhood -- a cousin of Hamas -- have come to power in Egypt. At the same time Hamas tried to use his visit to reinforce the impression that it is ascendant and no longer an isolated pariah.

Mr. Mashaal arrived in Gaza to celebrate the 25th anniversary Saturday of the founding of Hamas. His visit, 15 years after Israel nearly assassinated him, is a kind of victory for Hamas, which has just negotiated with Israel, however indirectly, for a cease-fire in a bloody eight-day conflict last month.

His visit also provided a visible unity in Palestinian territory of Hamas in exile, represented by Mr. Mashaal, and Hamas on the ground, in the person of the Gazan prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who met him at Rafah and traveled with him through a noisy and celebratory day.

Mr. Mashaal fled the West Bank with his family at age 11 after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He said Friday he had returned once to the West Bank in 1975 but had not entered Palestinian territory since.

In 1997, when he was in Amman, Jordan, agents from the Israeli intelligence service, posing as Canadian tourists, tried to kill him by injecting him with poison. The agents were captured by Jordanian authorities, and Mr. Mashaal lay in a coma until Benjamin Netanyahu, then and now the Israeli prime minister, was pressured to hand over an antidote.

"This is my third birth," Mr. Mashaal said. "The first was my natural birth. The second was when I recovered from the poisoning. I ask God that my fourth birth will be the day we liberate all of Palestine."

As a practical matter, Israel deals indirectly with Hamas but regards it as a terrorist group, using violence against civilians in its effort to drive Israelis from the region.

Later, in an emotional speech to Hamas supporters, Mr. Mashaal said: "Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa."

Mr. Mashaal told the Hamas fighters "to please keep your fingers on the trigger" and said, "there is no politics without resistance."

He was speaking to an impassioned crowd at the home of Ahmad Jabari, the operational commander of Hamas forces, killed by Israel at the outset of November's fighting, a man Mr. Mashaal praised as the key figure "in the victory of the eight-day battle" with Israel.

The eight days of fighting featured Israeli airstrikes and shelling and Hamas rocket launches against Israel. The Israeli government asserts that it sharply reduced Hamas' military capacity by killing Jabari and destroying storehouses of rockets and weapons.

Still, Hamas negotiated a cease-fire with Israel through the Egyptians, and for the movement it may represent an important step toward becoming a more recognized international player and representative of at least a portion of the Palestinian people.



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