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Hamas leader returns to Palestinian territories for first time since 1967

Suhaib Salem / Pool via EPA

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal shakes hands with supporters upon his arrival Friday at the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip.

CAIRO — The head of Hamas' political wing Khaled Mashaal entered the Gaza Strip Friday in an unprecedented move by the organization.

Mashaal, 56, is the head of Hamas' politburo-in-exile and the most senior Hamas figure in the entire organization.

He technically oversees the political wing and the military wing, known as the Al Qassam Brigades.

His visit to Gaza is his first to the Palestinian territories since 1967, when he left at the age of 11 as Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in the Six-Day War.

Mashaal survived an assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997 that was embarrassing for Prime Minister Benjamin  Netanyahu — who was serving as premier in his first stint at the time — because the Mossad agents were caught.

Israel then had to give the Jordanians the antidote to the poison Mashaal was injected with.

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Significant step
Mashaal’s visit to Gaza is a significant step for two reasons.

First, it is a sign Hamas has confidence that the ceasefire with Israel is holding and that there will not be an assassination attempts during his visit.

Second, Hamas in recent years has seen political infighting between the organization’s exiled leadership and the internal one in Gaza and the West Bank. His visit is aimed at reconciling these differences.

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Mashaal says he is shielded by the international involvement in the ceasefire he negotiated.

"Israel always violates agreements but Israel will be condemned if it doesn't abide by this written agreement under Egyptian sponsorship and U.S. presence," he told Reuters last week, referring to the ceasefire deal, which stipulated ending targeted assassinations. "The world witnessed it.”

Mouin Rabbani, an expert on Palestinian affairs, summed up the Palestinian view of Mashaal's arrival.

"It is a very welcome poke in the eye of Israel," he told Reuters. "It is a significant visit that shows Israel's position in Gaza has further weakened to the extent that the leader of the organization it went to war with last month and it tried to murder can now visit Gaza with the trappings of an official visit." 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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