Hamas political chief pays first visit to Gaza, vows next trip will be to Jerusalem

Khaled Mashaal says he’ll do everything in his power to unite Fatah and Hamas; Israel says it has no control over who enters Strip from Egypt

Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, left, and Gaza's former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh wave during a news conference in the Gaza Strip in 2012. (AP/Suhaib Salem, Pool)
Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, left, and Gaza's former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh wave during a news conference in the Gaza Strip in 2012. (AP/Suhaib Salem, Pool)

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal arrived in the Gaza Strip on Friday afternoon for the first time, seemingly signaling a changing attitude in the region vis-a-vis the Gaza-based terrorist organization, and told crowds that his next visits would be to Ramallah, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa.

Upon crossing the border from Egypt, a tearful Mashaal was greeted by Hamas officials and representatives of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party.

Mashaal, who heads Hamas’s political bureau, embraced the group’s prime minister in the Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, and kissed the ground.

In a joint press conference with his celebrated guest, Haniyeh called Mashaal’s visit “a historic moment for the Palestinian people and a victory for our people.”

“I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza,” Mashaal told reporters as he stood alongside senior Hamas member Mousa Abu Marzouk and Haniyeh. “I ask God to give me martyrdom one day on this land.”

An earlier report that the visit had been postponed by the Egyptian government due to the deteriorating situation in Cairo proved unfounded. London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat had claimed earlier Friday that Egyptian authorities were unable to provide adequate security for Mashaal in Gaza.

The visit by Mashaal appeared to signal a growing regional acceptance of the Islamic terrorist group in charge of the once isolated territory.

Mashaal is scheduled to stay in Gaza for three days, with Hamas’s 25th anniversary rally on Saturday set as the centerpiece. On Friday, he appeared before the charred car of Hamas terror chief Ahmad Jabari, assassinated by Israel at the beginning of last month’s round of violence.

The landmark visit is taking place just two weeks after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza fighting in four years, in which Hamas pounded Israeli cities with some 1,500 rockets and missiles. The Israeli military responded with roughly the same number of airstrikes.

Hamas has portrayed itself as the victor because Israel agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce after eight days, without sending ground troops into Gaza, as it initially threatened.

Zahar said Mashaal’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.”

Mashaal’s visit, though widely cheered, is nevertheless sensitive because of Palestinian political infighting. Mashaal, considered more pragmatic than Hamas’s Gaza-based hard-line leaders, forged a reconciliation agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the West Bank. But the Gaza-based leadership, unsupportive of the agreement, has held up implementing it.

On Friday Mashaal asked aides to remove a red carpet laid out for him and refused an honor guard ceremony for his arrival. He appeared sensitive to the fact that Abbas still has not visited Gaza since Hamas wrested control of Gaza from his Fatah Party in 2007.

Mashaal stated he would do everything in his power to unite Hamas and Fatah, and that the Hamas leadership will accelerate the reconciliation with Fatah in order for the Palestinian groups to stand together against Israel.

Palestinian officials in the West Bank expressed hope that Mashaal’s visit would help finalize the Palestinian political unity deal.

On Thursday, workers set up the stage for the anniversary rally, including a 13-meter-high (43-foot-high) replica of an M-75, a missile Hamas has fired deep into Israel. “Made in Gaza,” was written on the rocket.

Mashaal, whose family left the West Bank when he was a child, grew up in Kuwait and moved to Qatar this year after abandoning his longtime base in Syria.

His visit was meant to coincide with the last stretch of secret internal Hamas elections that began seven months ago.

Mashaal, who has headed the group’s decision-making bureau since 1996, said earlier this year he is not seeking re-election, but some suggested his Gaza visit could signal a change of heart and an attempt to mollify Gaza Hamas hardliners with whom he clashed months ago.

Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri said he believes the main purpose of the trip was an attempt supported by Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to get Mashaal re-elected. “Egypt, Qatar and Turkey want Khaled Mashaal, simply because he is a moderate and can get things done between the West and the Islamists,” said al-Masri.

Israel, meanwhile, appears to be looking the other way.

Israel considers Hamas a terror organization, refuses to deal with it directly, and imposed a Gaza border blockade after the Hamas takeover of the territory in 2007. However, since its Gaza offensive last month, Israel has conducted indirect talks with Hamas, through Egypt, on a truce and a further easing of the Gaza border restrictions, already relaxed somewhat in recent years.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Thursday that Israel has no say over who enters Gaza from Egypt. “We have no position on different individuals within Hamas,” he said when asked about the Mashaal trip. “Hamas is Hamas is Hamas.”

Fifteen years ago, Mashaal came close to being assassinated by Israel. In 1997, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term, ordered Mashaal killed in retaliation for Hamas suicide bombings in Israel. Israeli agents grabbed Mashaal in the streets of the Jordanian capital of Amman and injected him with poison, but were caught, forcing Netanyahu to send an antidote that saved Mashaal’s life. Netanyahu also had to release Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, to bring the agents back home.

While Israel has not publicly challenged Mashaal’s Gaza trip, Hamas’ smaller sister group Islamic Jihad said Thursday that Israel is trying to prevent its exiled leaders from joining the Hamas chief on his journey. Two members of Islamic Jihad said Israel relayed warnings through Egypt that it would consider the Gaza truce over if Islamic Jihad’s top two leaders in exile attempted to enter Gaza.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have received money and weapons from Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy. During last month’s cross-border fighting, Hamas fired Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles that landed close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel’s heartland. After the ceasefire, Mashaal thanked Iran for its military support of Gaza.

At the same time, Hamas under Mashaal has been drifting away from the Iranian-Syrian camp, particularly after Hamas’s break with Syrian President Bashar Assad this year over his brutal crackdown at home.

Mashaal has been trying to move Hamas closer to its parent movement, the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni group. The Brotherhood, a rival of Shiite Muslim-led Iran, rose to power in Egypt and Tunisia after last year’s Arab Spring uprisings. Mashaal also has close ties with Turkey and Qatar.

Both Egypt and Qatar have tried to broker a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Abbas, from whom Hamas seized Gaza more than five years ago. The most recent deal was signed this year by Abbas and Mashaal in the Qatari capital of Doha, but Mashaal couldn’t move forward because of an uproar by Hamas hardliners in Gaza.

Senior figures in Gaza, including Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar, complained at the time that they hadn’t been consulted. But mainly they balked at the idea of restoring some of Abbas’s authority in Gaza ahead of new elections — as envisioned by the Doha deal.

Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide in the West Bank, said Thursday that the Mashaal visit to Gaza might help a unity deal. “This would give a chance to everyone in Gaza to hear what the agreement in Doha was about,” he said.

However, the Mashaal visit and Hamas’s ostensibly successful dare to Israel — firing rockets toward Tel Aviv without triggering an Israeli ground offensive — also seemed to signal that the Gaza branch of Hamas is becoming increasingly influential at the expense of the exiles.

In the past, the exile-based political bureau was the main decision-maker and conduit for funds. In running Gaza, Hamas leaders there are increasingly making fateful decisions for the movement.

With Hamas basking in its self-declared victory over Israel, the group might be even less willing than before to compromise with Abbas for the sake of a unity deal. At the same time, reconciliation faces a host of other obstacles, including opposition from Abbas’s Fatah movement and lack of a clear path forward, including how to merge rival security forces.

Hamas leaders in Gaza portrayed the Mashaal visit as part of an extended celebration of what they see as their military triumph. “Mashaal is coming at a time when we are celebrating victory in the war,” said Salah Bardawil, a local Hamas leader. “A Hamas leader should come and celebrate with his people.”

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