Meshaal, 56, was born in the West Bank, but fled to Kuwait and then to Jordan after Isarel conquered the area in the Six-Day War of 1967. He joined in Hamas when the party, the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1987, and took over its political wing in 2004 after the previous leader and co-founder of Hamas, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, was assassinated in an Israeli Air Force strike.
Meshaal was a critic of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and is considered one of the driving forces behind Hamas' continued arming, and their refusal to recognize Israel and adhere to the "Road Map to Peace" laid out by the Diplomatic Quartet in the 2002 Madrid Talks. Meshaal was also heavily involved, along with recently killed Hamas military leader Amhed Jabaari, in the prisoner swap deal that released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.
While in Gaza, Meshaal is expected to meet with civilians and representatives from different parties, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, as well as the families of the "martyrs, prisoners, and those injured in the last Israeli aggression against Gaza." He will also speak on Saturday, during Hamas' anniversary rally.
Meshaal's landmark visit to Gaza is widely seen as a baton-pass to a new Hamas leadership, as he is widely rumored to not be seeking re-election. The talks will also be closely watched for any signs of unification between Hamas and Fatah, which have been sharply at odds since 2007.
Meshaal was a vocal supporter of Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' push in the U.N. to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Territories. Moreover, after Fatah's triumph in the U.N., and the victory that Hamas is claiming over Israel after the eight-day conflict, it may be the perfect time for the two Palestinian governments to show a united front.
Meshaal notably endorsed the unity deal proposed by Egypt in 2011 to bring the Palestinian factions together, and said in an interview with Reuters that the combination of the U.N. victory and the Gaza conflict should be seen as "empowering to all Palestinians."
Earlier this week, Hamas granted amnesty to 12 Fatah fighters who defected from Gaza in 2007, who were told to "join the resistance and stop wasting time."