The exiled leader of Hamas broke into tears as he arrived in the Gaza Strip yesterday for his first visit, a landmark trip reflecting his militant group’s growing international acceptance and its defiance of Israel.
Khaled Mashaal, who left the West Bank as a child and leads the Islamic militant movement from Qatar, crossed the Egyptian border, kissed the ground, and was greeted by a crowd of Hamas officials and representatives of Hamas’s rival Fatah party.
That the visit took place at all is a window on the changing climate of the Middle East and the balance of power among the factions and nations.
Hamas has received a boost from the rise of its parent movement, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, following Arab Spring revolts.
Deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak barely tolerated Hamas, co-operating with Israel on a blockade of Gaza after Hamas overran it in 2007.
Israel, along with the US and European Union, lists Hamas as a terror organisation because of its history of attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israelis.
However Egypt’s new Brotherhood-dominated regime has welcomed Hamas leaders, negotiating a truce to end an eight-day flare-up between Hamas and Israel last month.
Hamas trumpeted that as a victory, despite the further wave of death and destruction in the territory under its control in Israeli airstrikes, meant to stop daily Palestinian rocket attacks.
More significantly, in another precedent-setting series of events, the Egyptian prime minister and other foreign diplomats visited Gaza during the fighting.
“I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza,” Mr Mashaal told reporters as he stood alongside senior Hamas member Mousa Abu Marzouk and Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh. “I ask God to give me martyrdom one day on this land.”
Mahmoud Zahar, senior Hamas member, said Mr Mashaal’s first visit was in celebration of Hamas’s gains in the latest round of fighting.