Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal made his first visit to the Gaza Strip today, after Palestinians there fought Israel in an eight-day conflict last month.
“Gaza was deep in my heart,” Mashaal told reporters after arriving from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing to be met by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. He is due to visit the homes of people killed by Israeli airstrikes, including Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari and its spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Hamas will hold a rally tomorrow to mark its 25th anniversary.
The bloodshed between Israel and Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union, was halted on Nov. 21 with a cease-fire brokered by Egypt and the U.S. The following week, the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state, approving a bid by Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s rival. The two groups have pledged to seek reconciliation.
“We want this visit to be a message of unity and of turning the page of division,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, Hamas’s spokesman.
“Without all of you, I wouldn’t be here. I owe you and all the militants,” Mashaal said, addressing crowds. “Today is Gaza, it will be followed by Ramallah and Jerusalem.”
Ramallah is the capital of the West Bank, controlled by Abbas. Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of their state while Israel says the city is indivisible. Israeli plans to build new homes in and around Jerusalem on land internationally recognized as Palestinian drew condemnation this week from the U.S. and several other countries.
Hamas militants, in black masks and olive-green military uniforms, carried light and heavy weapons as they deployed along the main road between Rafah and Gaza City. Hamas police and security forces fanned out in main streets.
More than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed during last month’s conflict, as Israel pounded Gaza with air bombardment and naval artillery, and Palestinian militants fired rockets and mortars.
“It doesn’t matter who they are, Hamas still stands for violence, bloodshed, extremism and racism,” Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said today by phone. He said Mashaal’s visit “belies the preposterous accusation of a siege on Gaza.”
Hamas has controlled Gaza since ousting forces loyal to Abbas’s Fatah faction in 2007, having won elections the previous year.
Mashaal has led Hamas’s political bureau since 1996. He was born in the West Bank in 1956 and has lived in Kuwait and Jordan, where his involvement with Hamas began. He was based in Damascus until this year, and has said he won’t seek re-election as the group’s political leader.
Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza’s borders in June 2007 after Hamas broke off its power-sharing agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Restrictions have eased in recent years, and Hamas says further loosening is one of the elements of last month’s cease-fire accord.
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