Meshal has been barred for years from entering Palestinian territories through crossing points controlled by Israel. Entry from Egypt had been blocked by ousted president Hosni Mubarak but was facilitated by the country’s new Islamist-led government.
Coming after a visit in October by the emir of Qatar, the first head of state to go to Gaza under Hamas rule, Meshal’s arrival gave an added aura of legitimacy to the militant group’s government, now backed by Egypt.
Meshal — who left his boyhood home in the West Bank in 1967 and since has visited only once, in 1975 — kissed the ground after crossing into the Gaza Strip from Egypt at the Rafah border terminal.
In a statement to the media, Meshal said he considered his arrival in Gaza his “third birth,” following his actual birth, in 1956, and the day he survived an assassination attempt by Israeli agents in Jordan 15 years ago.
“I ask God that my fourth birth will be the day when all of Palestine is liberated,” Meshal said.
“Today Gaza, and after it Ramallah, then Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa, God willing,” he said, naming areas Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War along with cities inside Israel.
Despite Meshal’s call for reconciliation with the rival Fatah faction led by Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, his visit was used to amplify the message of armed resistance, as opposed to Abbas’s diplomacy.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, linked the visit to the recent conflict with Israel, in which Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Abu Zuhri called the trip “a fruit of the victory of the resistance over the occupation.”
Last week, Abbas won overwhelming support for a United Nations resolution upgrading the Palestinians’ status there to that of a nonmember observer state. The vote also was welcomed by Hamas.
The two factions fought a brief civil war in 2007 in which Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip. They signed a reconciliation accord last year but have made little progress toward implementing it.
As part of the reconciliation efforts, Meshal has backed Abbas’s call for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, along with unarmed “popular resistance,” but he has refused to renounce violence or commit to ending the conflict with Israel once a state is achieved.
Traveling through Gaza City on Friday in a convoy that was mobbed by hundreds of supporters, Meshal visited the home of the assassinated founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, as well as the home of Ahmed al-Jabari, the chief of Hamas’s military wing, who was killed at the start of last month’s Israeli offensive.
Although Meshal comes from the West Bank village of Silwad, his visit to Gaza, a return to Palestinian territory, carried strong symbolic meaning after a life spent moving from one Arab state to another.
After leaving the West Bank following its capture by Israel in the 1967 war, Meshal and his family moved to Kuwait, where his father worked. He went to Jordan after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that led to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and became active in Hamas.
In 1997, in an operation authorized by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, agents of Israel’s overseas intelligence agency, the Mossad, tried to assassinate Meshal on a street in Amman, injecting him in the ear with a lethal poison.
Outraged, Jordan’s King Hussein demanded that the Israelis hand over an antidote. The Israeli agents, who had been arrested, were released in exchange for an Israeli apology and the release from jail of Yassin and 19 other prisoners.
When Jordan outlawed Hamas in 1999, Meshal and other Hamas leaders were expelled. He lived in Qatar until 2001, when he moved to Damascus, Syria. The chairman of Hamas’s political bureau since 1996, Meshal became the group’s top political leader in 2004 after Israel assassinated Yassin and Hamas’s political leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Meshal was based in Damascus until early this year, when he returned to Qatar because of Syria’s civil war. After years of backing from the government of President Bashar al-Assad, Hamas’s relations with Syria ruptured over the group’s support for the anti-Assad uprising.
Islam Abdel Karim in Gaza contributed to this report.