Hamas’ political chairman, Khaled Mashaal, arrived in the Gaza Strip for the first time on Friday to celebrate Hamas' 25th anniversary and attend a rally to mark its ostensive victory over Israel during the recent eight-day outbreak of violence.
Mashaal was greeted by a Gaza City covered in green Hamas flags and a replica of an M75 rocket, the type that was fired at Tel Aviv during the offensive last month, the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency reported.
When Mashaal arrived, he was met by dozens of Palestinian officers and Gaza Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh. In front of reporters, Mashaal got on his knees and kissed the ground, referring to this visit as his "third birth," after a 1997 assassination attempt by Israel that he survived.
"I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine," Mashaal said at the scene. "Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah, and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa."
Despite hopes that Mashaal's visit might rekindle unity talks between Hamas in Gaza and the leading Fatah party in the West Bank, there are no reports that Mashaal is scheduled to meet with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. However, a Fatah representative confirmed for the Jerusalem Post that Fatah officials and supporters would participate in Hamas' rally on Saturday.
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One Fatah official told the Jerusalem Post, "This is a step forward toward achieving reconciliation."
The leader and deputy leader of Islamic Jihad, one of Hamas' companion Islamist groups, had also planned to be in Gaza to greet Mashaal, but they were warned by the Israeli government via Egypt not to enter the Strip, according to the Ma'an News Agency. Israel's Defense Ministry gave no specific reason why the two men, Ramadan Abdullah Shalah, and Ziad Nakhaleh, were warned away. Shalah is listed as a "specially designated terrorist" by the U.S.
While Hamas leaders in Gaza touted Mashaal's return as a triumph, Israeli media used the occasion to point out that Israel, among others, considers Hamas a terrorist group. Neither the Israeli prime minister's office nor the ministries of defense or foreign affairs released any statement addressing Mashaal's visit.
Saturday, the day of Hamas' 25th-anniversary rally, is not actually the anniversary of Hamas' founding, but of the first uprising, or intifada, against Israel, the Ma'an News Agency said.