Hamas’ exiled leader was due to step onto Palestinian soil for the first time in 45 years yesterday for a “victory rally” in the Gaza Strip, displaying his newfound confidence after last month’s conflict with Israel.
The Islamist group’s leader, Khaled Meshaal, who has not visited the Palestinian Territories since leaving the West Bank at age 11, emerged emboldened from the eight-day conflict, which ended in a ceasefire he negotiated under Egypt’s auspices.
“His visit is fruit of the victory achieved by the resistance over the occupation,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, hours before Meshaal was due to arrive via the Egyptian border into the tiny coastal enclave.
Hundreds of police and security forces were on duty at the Rafah crossing, some of them wearing black masks and riding in open trucks, with heavy machine guns attached to the rear.
Israel, which once tried to assassinate Meshaal, rejects Hamas’ assertion that it won the recent conflagration, that killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis.
He was due to stay for a little more than 48 hours in the Gaza Strip, which his Islamist group has ruled since a 2007 civil war against its secular rival Fatah that runs the nearby West Bank.
Meshaal left the West Bank with his family after the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel took control of the territory along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. He has never set foot in Gaza.
Hamas plans an open-air rally today to celebrate last month’s fight with Israel, and at the same time commemorate the 25th anniversary of the group’s founding.
Israel says its air strikes not only killed Hamas’ military chief, Ahmed al-Jaabari, but also depleted its arms stockpile.
However, the fighting clearly boosted Hamas’ standing in the region, winning it the support of Arab neighbors while leaving Fatah on the sidelines. Meshaal’s role in negotiating the truce raised his own personal standing within the group, although he says he plans to stand down soon.