Gaza: Hamas chief Khalid Mesha’al will make his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday to attend the Palestinian Islamist group’s 25th anniversary rally, Hamas sources said on Wednesday.
The two-day visit comes in the wake of last month’s air offensive by Israel against Hamas and other armed Islamist factions to stop them firing rockets from the enclave at southern Israeli towns.
Gaza has become Hamas’ stronghold, with Esmail Haniya as its prime minister, since it evicted the rival Palestinian Fatah movement by force in 2007. The narrow coastal territory is blockaded by Israel in coordination with southern neighbour Egypt.
Mesha’al ran Hamas from exile in Damascus from 2004 until January this year when he quit the Syrian capital because of President Bashar Al Assad’s bloody war with fellow Sunni rebels. He now divides his time between Doha and Cairo.
It was unclear whether Mesha’al’s visit would mark the conclusion of a secretive Hamas internal leadership election that has been going on for the past six months.
He had declared that he wanted to leave the post, but he may bow to those among the movement’s top ranks and its allies who believe he ought to remain in command.
Hamas sources said the visit by Mesha’al, 56, was coordinated with Cairo officials.
Hamas denied seeking guarantees via Egyptian contacts with Israel that he would not be targeted for assassination in Gaza. Senior Hamas official Salah Al Bardaweel said the group’s security and armed forces would protect him.
Mesha’al can expect a warm reception. Members of the movement’s armed wing will guard his convoy on the 30km route from Rafah on the Egyptian border north to Gaza City.
He has scheduled a stop at the house of the group’s founder Shaikh Ahmad Yassin, whom Israel assassinated in 2004, then visit the mourning house of Ahmad Al Jaabari, the Hamas chief of staff whom Israel killed on November 14, triggering the fighting.
Mesha’al was expelled from Jordan in 1999, and moved to Qatar, then to Damascus in 2001. He survived a Mossad assassination attempt in Amman in 1997, when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was last in power.
Under Mesha’al’s leadership since 2004, the Islamists have refused to renounce their claim to all of pre-1948 Palestine, but have been willing to accept a de facto Palestinian state on the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist on the rest of the land and says it will not agree to a permanent peace treaty.
Mesha’al is expected to address Saturday’s Hamas anniversary rally, when it is customary to outline strategy for the near future regarding internal politics as well as the conflict with Israel.
Mesha’al strongly backed the diplomatic initiative by Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to upgrade Palestinian status at the United Nations to “observer state”, which the General Assembly endorsed last Thursday in New York.