First Ever Visit |

Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal Makes Historic Visit to Gaza, With Eye on Presidency

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At around noon Friday, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal crossed the border at Rafah for the first time ever - entering Hamas' Gaza ministate.

Until Operation Pillar of Defense last month, Meshal had been considered almost done in internal politics. But due to his critical role in reaching a cease-fire with Israel, Meshal will be keeping his job for a while, at least until the Palestinian presidential election, Egyptian and Palestinian officials say.

Meshal is expected to be accompanied by his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who until recently was considered a front-runner to succeed Meshal. Also on hand will be the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, another front-runner.

The celebrations of Hamas' 25th anniversary could be said to have begun Thursday, when Meshal's wife, Amal al-Biruni, entered the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing with 14 relatives.

Gaza residents, especially Hamas supporters, are looking forward to greeting the real orchestrator of Hamas' latest conflict with Israel.

Meshal's political ascent is perhaps the main reason for his visit to Gaza: to launch his presidential campaign. He won't say so, but it's an open secret that the 56-year-old has something bigger in mind than heading Hamas.

Such a visit would once greatly risk assassination by Israel. But in the new era after Operation Pillar of Defense, in which Hamas and Israel are keeping the cease-fire to the letter, Meshal can tour Gaza safely.

Meshal is expected to stop first at the home of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hamas' founder whom Israel assassinated in 2004. He will then visit the home of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari, whom Israel assassinated last month. Meshal is also expected to visit the house of the Daloo family, where 12 people were killed in an Israeli air strike during Pillar of Defense.

Meshal will give a speech in honor of the movement's anniversary at Katiba Square in Gaza City, at the foot of a giant model of a Fajr missile - the kind Hamas fired at Tel Aviv.

Meshal will of course focus on what Hamas calls its great victory against Israel last month, but he will also address internal Palestinian reconciliation. Meshal paid a high price for signing the reconciliation agreement with Fatah last year under Qatar's auspices; the entire Hamas leadership in Gaza came out against him.

The reconciliation failed and Meshal said he did not seek to remain the head of the movement's political wing. But now, after Pillar of Defense, Egypt wants Meshal to stay where he is, while Haniyeh and Abu Marzouk are considered potential successors only. Meshal is also the closest person in Hamas to the emir of Qatar, who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Hamas in Gaza, as well as to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Meshal's visit will mark the renewal of the reconciliation efforts he led. In a statement Thursday, Fatah said it plans to take part in Hamas' celebration.

For the first time in the history of the two groups, Fatah leaders will welcome Hamas' political chief. And for the first time in Hamas' history, all the Palestinian factions, including the secular ones, will greet the leader warmly. Suddenly the reconciliation agreement doesn't seem so elusive, and even the word "election" isn't being ridiculed by Gazans.

Hamas political bureau head Khaled Meshal is adamant that his organization was not behind the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers.Credit: AP
A girl dressed as an armed Hamas brigade member holding the barrel of a gun during a march in Beit Hanoun Thursday celebrating the movement’s 25th anniversary.Credit: AFP

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