Hamas leader Khaled Meshal arrived in the Gaza Strip on Friday, witnesses said, ending 45 years of exile from the Palestinian Territories with a visit that underscored the Islamist group's growing confidence.
Meshal prayed with his head to the ground after entering Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.
He was welcomed by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and leaders of other Palestinian militant groups. Representatives of the rival Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who governs the West Bank, were also present.
Meshal told the gathered crowds he hoped his next visit would be to Jerusalem, Ramallah and all of Palestine, the Palestinian news agency Ma'an reported.
"I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza," Meshal told reporters as he stood alongside Hamas member Mousa Abu Marzouk and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. "I ask God to give me martyrdom one day on this land."
Meshal appeared before the charred car of Hamas militant chief Ahmed Jabari, assassinated by Israel at the beginning of last month's round of violence.
Mahmoud Zahar, senior Hamas member, said Meshal's first visit was in celebration of Hamas' gains in the latest round of fighting. "He should return after a victory," Zahar said. "This return came after a victory."
On Friday, Meshal asked aides to remove a red carpet laid out for him and refused an honor guard ceremony for his arrival.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank expressed hope that Meshal's visit would help finalize the Palestinian political unity deal.
Thousands of makes Hamas militants deployed throughout Gaza to protect Meshal's convoy, with rocket propelled grenades, assault rifles and anti-aircraft weaponry in tow.
The 56-year-old leader will spend barely 48 hours in the coastal enclave and attend a mass rally on Saturday that has been billed as both a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and a "victory" celebration after its recent war with Israel.
Meshal previously had been prevented from crossing into Gaza by longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. But Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, has risen to power.
Meshal has led Hamas since 1996, helping to build the Iranian-backed movement into a potent force. Under his leadership, Hamas carried out numerous suicide bombings and other attacks on buses, cafe's and other public places that killed hundreds of Israelis during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. The group has been branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.
He also survived an Israeli assassination attack in Jordan in 1997. Until recently, he was based in Syria but after civil war broke out there, he relocated to Qatar.
Hamas overtook Gaza from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party in 2007. It has yet to reconcile with Fatah, which rules the West Bank.
The announcement of Meshal's Gaza visit followed the United Nations vote last week to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem as a non-member observer state.
Israel and Hamas are observing a truce that ended eight days of cross-border fighting in November, which was brokered by Egypt. Two members of Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad said Thursday that Egypt had relayed warnings that Israel would consider the Gaza truce over if the leaders of Islamic Jihad entered Gaza with Meshal. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the issue with the media. Israel's Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now