Hamas leader returns to Gaza to a hero's welcome

Khaled Meshaal is making his first visit in 45 years to celebrate the founding of the group

Jerusalem

Khaled Meshaal, the exiled political leader of Hamas, will receive a hero’s welcome when he arrives in Gaza this week for his first visit to the Palestinian territories for 45 years, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the group.

It will be Mr Meshaal’s first ever visit to Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since it overthrew the Fatah administration of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Both Hamas – whose name is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement – and Fatah are trying to gain domestic support as they try to revive stalled unity talks and hold a long-overdue general election.

The anniversary celebrations have been brought forward by a week to help Hamas maintain its political momentum following the end of the recent conflict with Israel that brought a flood of foreign dignitaries and delegations to Gaza for the first time since Hamas took power.

In Ramallah, the rival Fatah leadership is also riding high on last week’s UN General Assembly victory that upgraded Palestine to a non-member observer state. President Abbas was greeted by a large crowd when he returned from New York this week and is hoping for another popular boost when he welcomes King Abdullah of Jordan for a visit.

On Monday, 12 Fatah fighters who fled Gaza in 2007 were welcomed back and promised an amnesty by Hamas leaders, eager to enhance the spirit of reconciliation. “Join the resistance and stop wasting time. Let’s put our hands together and carry the gun,” urged a senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar.

“I tell Fatah members: those who want to join the victors and who want to celebrate and feel honoured and carry the gun – we open our arms to them on the basis of resistance. Those who want to do different than this we tell them we know our way, which is to Jerusalem,” declared Mr Zahar.

Shortly before the recent conflict with Israel, there were clear signs many Palestinians were growing weary of radical policies after five years of strict Hamas rule in Gaza.

A poll carried out in early November for the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre revealed that 40 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza would vote for Fatah, with Hamas support at just 22.4 per cent. In the West Bank, support for Hamas was even lower at 16.6 per cent.

The same poll showed 65 per cent of Palestinians in favour of “peaceful negotiations” or “non-violent resistance” compared with just 28 per cent who wanted a return to “armed resistance” – the strategy favoured by Hamas.

The exact timing of Mr Meshaal’s arrival and his schedule were being kept secret for security reasons. He is expected to participate in a huge rally on Saturday in al-Kateeba Square in Gaza City after meeting Hamas leaders and visiting victims of recent Israeli attacks including the family of Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas military commander assassinated at the start of the conflict. He will be accompanied by his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who has visited Gaza briefly once before.

On Wednesday, carpenters were putting the finishing touches to the central stage in al-Kateeba Square that featured a traditional Arabesque fortress around a camouflage-painted model of a 12-metre-high M-75 rocket used by Hamas to bombard Israel in November bearing the legend “made in Gaza”. Convoys of vehicles carrying young men roared through the streets of Gaza City displaying Hamas flags and playing loud nationalist songs. The streets were decorated with hundreds of Hamas banners mixed with Palestinian flags, as if to emphasise the legitimacy of the Hamas government for the new state of Palestine.

Mohammed Samir, 44, a Hamas supporter, told The Independent he would be “very happy” to see Mr Meshaal in Gaza. “I love this man,” said Mr Samir. “He is a very good, very smart man. For him to reach Gaza proves that we have achieved total victory. It means Gaza is under our control. Until now, Egypt and Israel were preventing people from entering. Now anyone can come to Gaza.

“Psychologically, this will give a positive boost for the resistance and for the citizens who suffered so much in this last war,” he said.

Ayman Farid, 31, who described himself as an independent, said he was unmoved by the imminent arrival of Mr Meshaal. “It makes no difference. I don’t care,” he said.

A Salafi Islamist who gave his name as Abu Mahmoud hinted at the divisions that remain among the ultra-religious Palestinians.

“He’s a bad leader, he’s not even a good Muslim,” he said.

Khaled Meshaal: Leader in exile

Khaled Meshaal has helped build Hamas into strong force since he became leader in 1996. In exile since the 1967 Six-Day War, the 56-year-old was previously prevented from crossing into Gaza by the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, now holds power in Egypt.

Meshaal – who had until recently been based in Syria, but has relocated to Qatar – has been a strong advocate of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, a view he is expected to encourage on his visit to Gaza this week.

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