Khaled Meshaal's return gives Palestinians new hope for unity

Hamas' exiled political leader pledges to work with Fatah on his first visit to Gaza since 1967

Jerusalem

Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas, ended decades of exile, falling to his knees and kissing the ground as he arrived in Gaza on a visit which many Palestinians hope could help mend the rift with his political rivals in Fatah.

His return to Palestinian territories follows an eight-day conflict last month between Hamas and Israel, in which 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed. The two sides reached a ceasefire and Israel – whose agents tried to assassinate Mr Meshaal in 1997 – is understood to have given tacit agreement to the visit.

But security was tight in Gaza and Israeli officials were offering no guarantees of safe passage. A foreign ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among Hamas leaders. "Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," said spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Shortly after arriving over the Rafah border crossing from Egypt, Mr Meshaal announced his "re-birth". He then prayed with his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, before embracing and kissing dozens of political, religious and militant leaders. "This is a victory for the Palestinian people and his leadership inside Palestine and outside," said his host, Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh. In a rare display of unity, senior Fatah officials joined the reception committee.

Mr Meshaal has been living in exile since the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967 forced his family to flee, but managed to build Hamas into a strong force from exile. His return reflects a growing regional acceptance for Hamas as the Arab Spring sweeps more sympathetic governments into power.

Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt had bowed to Israeli demands to block Mr Meshaal's passage into Gaza. But his successors in the Muslim Brotherhood have hardened their stance towards Israel, while offering more co-operation to Hamas.

Mr Meshaal's historic visit has for now papered over deep divisions within Hamas over the Islamic group's future strategy towards Israel and the thorny question of future co-operation with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement governs parts of the West Bank after Hamas expelled them from Gaza in 2007. Mr Meshaal vowed to push for unity – the wish of many ordinary Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. "This is a promise from the leadership of Hamas. We will press ahead with reconciliation to end divisions and to stand united against the Zionist occupation," he said.

Surrounded by dark-suited security men with earpieces, Mr Meshaal inspected the wreckage of the car in which the Hamas military chief, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated by Israel last month. He was also expected to visit the home of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader assassinated by Israel in 2004, before participating in a huge rally today to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Resistance Movement. He will leave shortly after.

In his first public comments, Mr Meshaal derided Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for endorsing a failed attempt on his life in Amman in 1997. "This is … my third birth. The first was my natural birth in 1956, the second was in 1997, when there was an attempt by the crazed Netanyahu to assassinate me, and this one on the 7th of December 2012. The fourth birth will be in liberating Palestine, in Ramallah, Jerusalem and Haifa and Jaffa," he declared to an audience of dignitaries, security personnel and media.

Mr Meshaal's wife arrived on Thursday, accompanied by more than a dozen family members and Hamas officials. Leaders of Islamic Jihad had hoped to join the commemoration but Israel said that would be a violation of the ceasefire agreement and threatened to assassinate them if they entered Gaza.

Before his guest's arrival, Mr Haniyeh was asked whether he feared Israel might attempt to kill Mr Meshaal. "We don't rule out any foolish behaviour by the Israelis but our people in its steadfastness, and the resistance with its high capabilities, will make the occupation think dozens of times before committing any foolish step. Under the shadow of our guns, the occupation won't be able to hurt any of our leaders," he declared.

Saturday's rally is not being held on the exact date of Hamas's founding, but on the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian uprising against Israel. The choice is being seen as a new willingness to seek reconciliation with President Abbas, who hosted King Abdullah of Jordan in Ramallah on Thursday in an apparent attempt to re-direct some of the limelight from Gaza.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'