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Triumphal visit to Gaza for exiled Hamas leader

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has ended decades of exile from Palestinian land with a triumphal first visit to the Gaza Strip that underscored the Islamist group's growing confidence following its latest conflict with Israel.

ACCLAIM: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal makes a triumphant visit to Gaza
ACCLAIM: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal makes a triumphant visit to Gaza

After passing through the Egyptian border crossing yesterday, Mr Meshaal knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, offering up a prayer of thanks. He was then greeted in the warm December sun by dozens of officials from an array of competing factions.

Mr Meshaal will spend barely 48 hours in the coastal enclave and attend a mass rally today that has been billed as both a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and a "victory" celebration following the November fighting.

Israel rejects Hamas's assertion that it won the recent conflict, which killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis.

Mr Meshaal said his arrival in Gaza was another rebirth that followed on from his natural birth in the nearby West Bank in 1956 and a second birth that was his narrow escape from an Israeli assassination squad in 1997.

"I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine," he said, clearly moved by his reception, with uniformed police breaking ranks to try and kiss his hand.

"Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa," he said. Ramallah is in the West Bank, while the latter cities, which have large Arab populations, are in modern-day Israel.

Later yesterday, he was expected to visit the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, as well as that of Ahmed Al Jaabari, the group's military commander, who was killed in a similar air strike last month.

Hamas denied seeking guarantees via Egyptian contacts with Israel that Mr Meshaal would not be targeted for assassination in Gaza. There was massive security for his arrival, with gun-toting, black-masked guards from the Hamas military wing patrolling the streets in open-topped trucks and motorbikes.

Mr Meshaal, 56, had been widely understood not to have set foot in the Palestinian territories since he left his native West Bank with his family aged 11. However, in his speech he indicated he had returned for a visit as a teenager in 1975.

Hamas has ruled the tiny Gaza Strip and its 1.7 million population since 2007, when it won a brief civil war with its secular rival Fatah, which still controls the occupied West Bank. Israel had pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

The Palestinian movement's founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel but its leaders have indicated a willingness to negotiate a prolonged truce in return for a withdrawal to the lines established before the 1967 war, when Israel seized East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.

Hamas, which continues to say it will not recognise the Jewish state officially, is viewed as a terrorist group by Israel, the US and most Western governments.

Mr Meshaal ran Hamas from exile in Syria from 2004 until January this year when he left Damascus because of Iranian-backed President Bashar al Assad's war against Sunni Muslim rebels, whose religion and politics are closer to those of the Palestinians. He now divides his time between Qatar and Cairo.

His abrupt departure from Syria initially weakened his position within Hamas: ties with Damascus and Tehran had made him important, but with those links damaged or broken, rivals based within Gaza had started to assert their authority.

However, he regained the initiative in last month's rocket war with Israel, working closely with Egypt to secure the truce, and although he says he plans to stand down soon, few in the Gaza Strip expect him to follow through on that pledge.

Today's mass rally is the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada.

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