Haniyeh Leaves Gaza for First Time in 5 Years

Gaza Strip's top political leader embarks on the trip after being encouraged by the recent political changes in Arab countries.

The Gaza Strip's top political leader ventured from the territory Sunday on his first regional political tour since change swept the Arab world. Ismail Haniyeh said he had decided to embark on the trip after being encouraged by the recent political changes in Arab countries.

Haniyeh's first stop is Cairo, where he is to meet with Egypt's military leadership as well as Egyptian intelligence chief Murad Muwafi.

Ismail Haniyeh - AP - Sept. 28, 2010

From there, Haniyeh will continue to Qatar, Turkey and Sudan, where he will attend a summit meeting on Jerusalem. His itinerary also includes Tunisia and Bahrain.

Haniyeh is favored by many in Hamas to run in the Palestinian presidential election, slated for May 4, 2012, although officials in the group have said it is too soon to discuss candidates.

"The Arab Spring has opened a wide horizon for us and we must take advantage to promote the interests of our people," Haniyeh told reporters before crossing into Egypt.

Missing from Haniyeh's itinerary is Syria, which has hosted Hamas's leadership in Damascus for the past decade. The group has taken a neutral stand since the internal unrest in Syria began earlier this year. Many Hamas officials and their families have left Syria in recent weeks.

Haniyeh appealed for calm in Syria: "We have called for preserving Arab blood and for using dialogue and understanding between all the components of Arab countries," he said.

Haniyeh was set to arrive in Cairo last night. Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas' political bureau, was set to leave Egypt after a few-day visit of meetings with Palestine Liberation Organization leaders over the recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas and discussions about Hamas joining the PLO.