Mashaal hailed in Gaza

Mashaal hailed in Gaza

Mashaal hailed in Gaza

Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal (L), riding in a car with senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (R), waves to the crowd upon his arrival in the Gaza Strip. REUTERS Photo

Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal made his first visit to Gaza, kissing the ground and saying he hoped he would one day die a “martyr” in the Palestinian territory.

After his seven-vehicle convoy swept across the border from Egypt, Mashaal got out and knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, offering up a prayer of thanks before embracing Gaza’s Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya. Green Hamas flags and the red, white, green and black of the Palestinian flag were everywhere to mark the visit, which was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the founding of the movement.

Mashaal was accompanied by his deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk, and other top officials, including the representatives of Hamas’ rival Fatah party, on a trip just two weeks after the end of the deadly confrontation with Israel that began on Nov. 14 with an Israeli air strike killing Hamas military commander Ahmed Jaabari.

Shortly after his arrival, Mashaal 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.
Security was tight across the territory with masked militants from Hamas’ military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, out in force, wearing fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles as they patrolled the roads along which Mashaal’s convoy was to travel.

Today Gaza, tomorrow Jerusalem

Speaking to reporters, Mashaal said his arrival in Gaza was like a rebirth that followed on from his natural birth in the nearby West Bank in 1956 and a second that was his narrow escape from an Israeli assassination squad in 1997. “I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine,” said Mashaal. He is originally from a village in the West Bank but went into exile with his family after the 1967 Middle East war, only returning for a brief visit in 1975. It was his first-ever visit to Gaza.

“Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa,” he said. Shortly afterward, the convoy set off for Gaza City, traveling along streets decked with Hamas flags and the red flags of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which on Dec. 11 marks its 45th anniversary. In Gaza City, the delegation was to pay a visit to the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.

Hamas marks its official anniversary on Dec. 14, but celebrations are to begin on Dec. 8 with a major rally at which Mashaal is expected to speak. During his four-day visit, Mashaal will meet members of different Palestinian factions as well as the bereaved and the wounded from last month’s conflict, Hamas officials said.