Hamas Chief Ends 45-Year Exile With Gaza Visit

Hamas Chief Ends 45-Year Exile With Gaza Visit

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has crossed into Gaza on his first ever trip to the territory marking the end of a 45-year exile from the Palestinian territories.

He will spend just 48 hours in Gaza, attending a "victory rally" on Saturday, which will also mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas.

Meshaal crossed the border from Egypt, accompanied by his deputy, Musa Abu Marzuk, and kissed the ground has he got out of the car. He then embraced the Hamas prime minister, Mussa Abu Marzuk.

The visit underscores the Islamist group's growing confidence following the recent conflict with Israel.

The veteran Hamas strategist, Mahmoud Al-Zahar, said: "All Palestinians will eventually return to their homeland. Khaled Meshaal is returning after a victory."

Shortly after arriving, Meshaal was taken to see the remains of the car in which the Hamas militant Ahmed Jaabari was travelling when he was killed in an Israeli airstrike.

On seeing it, the Hamas leader said: "I hope God will make me a martyr on the land of Palestine in Gaza."

The 56-year-old Meshaal left the nearby West Bank as a young boy in 1967 and, until now, had never set foot in Gaza, which has been governed by Hamas since 2007.

Hamas laid on extensive security for his arrival, with heavily armed men, some wearing black masks, patrolling the border area. Meshaal was the target of an assassination mission by Israel's Mossad in 1997 in Jordan.

Meshaal ran Hamas from exile in Damascus from 2004 until January this year when he quit the Syrian capital because of Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad's war against Sunni Muslim rebels. He now divides his time between Qatar and Cairo.

The centrepiece of his visit will be the open-air rally on Saturday, which Hamas will use to proclaim victory in the recent eight-day conflict with Israel that killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis and ended in a ceasefire.

Hamas is on the UK Home Office's list of proscribed groups. The US classifies Hamas as a terrorist organisation.