Steven Erlanger
The New York Times
December 7, 2012 - 1:00am

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Khaled Meshal, whom the Israelis tried to assassinate in Jordan in 1997, arrived for his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday as head of the political bureau of Hamas, which has established a ministate here.

For Mr. Meshal, 56, it was a triumphant visit, and Hamas soldiers, armed with rifles and wearing balaclavas, lined the streets where he was to travel. He entered from Egypt, through the Rafah crossing, an indication of a new alliance with Cairo.

“Gaza, with its martyrs, cannot be described in words,” he said as he arrived in Rafah, with tears in his eyes. “There are no words to describe Gaza, to describe the heroes, the martyrs, the blood, the mothers who lost their sons.

“I say I return to Gaza even if I never have been here. It has always been in my heart.”

Mr. Meshal fled the West Bank with his family after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and had never returned to Palestinian territory. In 1997, when he was in Amman, agents from the Israeli intelligence service, posing as Canadian tourists, tried to kill Mr. Meshal by injecting him with poison. The agents were captured by Jordanian authorities, and Mr. Meshal lay in a coma until the agents handed over the antidote.

He arrived in Gaza to celebrate the 25th anniversary on Saturday of the founding of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has also risen to power in neighboring Egypt and has been a key to the Arab “awakening” that has shaken old alliances throughout the Middle East.

“This is my third birth,” Mr. Meshal said. “The first was my natural birth. The second was when I recovered from the poisoning. I ask God that my fourth birth will be the day we liberate all of Palestine.”

Mr. Meshal also plans to celebrate what Hamas considers a victory over Israel in the recent conflict here, eight days of fighting featuring Israeli airstrikes and shelling and Hamas rocket launches against Israel. The Israeli government claims that it sharply reduced Hamas’s military capacity, destroying storehouses of rockets and weapons and killing the operational commander of the Hamas forces, Ahmed al-Jaabari, at the outset of the fighting.

Still, Hamas negotiated a cease-fire with Israel through the agency of the Egyptians, and for the movement it may represent an important step toward becoming a more recognized international player and representative of at least a portion of the Palestinian people.

Mr. Meshal was expected to visit the homes of Mr. Jaabari; the Dalu family, who lost 10 members in an Israeli airstrike in the November fighting; and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, an assassinated Hamas spiritual leader.

The Fatah movement controls the West Bank, which Israel still occupies, and the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas is the defining principle of Palestinian politics, despite continuing efforts by Egypt to bring about a reconciliation. The uprising in Syria drove Mr. Meshal and the Hamas political bureau out of its offices in the Syrian capital, Damascus, to resettle in Egypt, pulling Hamas farther from Shiite Iran, which continues to help sponsor it, and closer to its Sunni Muslim roots. That has also made Hamas potentially more attractive to Egypt and Israel as a negotiating partner, however indirect, in trying to preserve stability in the region.

But Hamas, which considers itself a fighting force in contrast to Fatah, which has engaged in direct negotiations with Israel, is proud of its accomplishments in Gaza, even as it has put a more repressive and Islamist stamp on society here.

Decorating the stage where the anniversary celebration will be held is a mock-up of a large rocket, called the M-75, that Hamas claims it has built on its own and can reach almost 50 miles, close to Tel Aviv. The M stands for a dead founder of Hamas, Ibrahim Maqadma, killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2003.

In fact the Hamas anniversary is Dec. 14, but the organization moved the celebration forward a week to honor the first intifada against Israel.




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