Hamas leader makes first-ever trip to Gaza

INT
Khaled Meshaal, whom the Israelis tried to assassinate in Jordan in 1997, arrived for his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday as head of the political bureau of Hamas, which has established a ministate here.

For Meshal, 56, it was a triumphant visit, and 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.

"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, the heroes, martyrs, blood, mothers who lost their sons.

I say I return to Gaza even if I never have been here. It has always been in my heart."

Meshal's visit resonated on multiple levels, reflecting the many changes that have swept the region since the Arab Spring. Meshal was permitted to cross the Egyptian border now that allies of the Muslim Brotherhood — a cousin of Hamas — have come to power. But it also reflected at least a symbolic effort to heal divisions within Hamas between Meshal and the leadership in Gaza, and for Hamas to promote its contention that it was victorious in its recent battle with Israel. Meshal fled the West Bank with his family after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and had never returned to Palestinian territory. 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 Meshal lay in a coma until the agents handed over the antidote.

He arrived in Gaza to celebrate the 25th anniversary on Saturday of the founding of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has also risen to power in neighboring Egypt and has been a key to the Arab awakening that has shaken old alliances throughout the Middle East.

"This is my third birth," Meshal 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."

Meshal also plans to celebrate what Hamas considers a victory over Israel in the recent conflict here, eight days of fighting featuring Israeli airstrikes and shelling and Hamas rocket launches against Israel.

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