Hamas leader Meshaal ends exile with 'historic' visit to Gaza


Formerly exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has vowed to work for reconciliation with the rival Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank.

Mr Meshaal (56), who is originally from the West Bank but went into exile with his family after the 1967 six-day Arab-Israeli war, arrived there yesterday, ending 37 years of exile from the Palestinian territories.He knelt on the ground to offer a prayer of thanks after crossing the border from Egypt. “I hope God will make me a martyr on the land of Palestine in Gaza,” he said. “Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa.”

Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh welcomed Mr Meshaal’s arrival as historic in Palestinian history. The visit, two weeks after the end of the eight-day war with Israel, is viewed as further proof that Hamas has cemented its grip on power.

Today Mr Meshaal will attend a mass rally , called to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Hamas’s founding and last month’s “victory” over Israel. Green Hamas flags are flying throughout Gaza city and a stage has been set up, complete with a huge model of the Fajr rocket, fired at both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last month.

Mr Meshaal, who will leave Gaza tomorrow, visited the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, and the home of Ahmed Jabari, the group’s military commander, who was killed in an airstrike last month at start of Israel’s operation Pillar of Defence.

Last month’s visit to Gaza during the war by a number of Arab foreign ministers ended Hamas’s diplomatic isolation, and this weekend’s visit by the organisation’s political bureau chief is another sign of Hamas’s growing self- confidence.

Mr Meshaal, who has headed the group’s decision-making bureau since 1996, has said he is not seeking re-election, but some suggested his Gaza visit could signal a change of heart.

Israel, which imposes an economic blockade on Gaza, ignored the weekend visit.