GAZA - Reuters
Hamas Leader Khaled Meshaal AFP photo
Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal crossed into the Gaza Strip on Friday on his first-ever visit, kissing the ground and hoping he would one day die a "martyr" in the Palestinian territory.
Accompanied by his deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk, and other senior officials, Meshaal drove through the crossing and then got out and kissed the ground before embracing Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya.
His visit comes just two weeks after the end of a fierce conflict with Israel, which began on November 14 with an Israeli air strike in Gaza City that killed top Hamas militant Ahmed Jaabari.
Shortly after his arrival, Meshaal was taken to see the charred remains of Jaabari's car, which had been transported to Rafah especially for the visit.
"I hope God will make me a martyr on the land of Palestine in Gaza," he said on seeing it.
Izzat al-Rishq, another senior member of the Islamist movement's exiled politbureau, said it was a moving experience to finally be in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
"This is the greatest feeling I've ever had. It is an unforgettable historic moment," he told AFP. "Our wish to kiss the soil of Palestine has come true." Senior Hamas official Mahmud al-Zahar hailed the visit and said it was replete with symbolism.
"No matter how long a Palestinian is away from his homeland, he will always return after a victory," he told AFP.
Streets across the territory were decked with green Hamas flags to mark the visit, along with the red flags of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) which on December 11 marks its 45th anniversary.
Masked Hamas militants from its Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades armed wing were out en masse, wearing fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles, as they patrolled the roads along which the official convoy was set to travel.