Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s leader-in-exile, is a wanted man. But last Friday, the 7th of December, after a ceasefire brought eight days of fighting between Palestinian and Israeli forces to an end, Meshaal seized the opportunity to return to Palestine.
Before his visit, he'd never been there since he formally took control of organisation. The last time he was in Palestine – officially, at least – was 1975, and after a 37-year absence it's not known exactly how much power Meshaal still wields within Hamas.
Khaled Meshaal, centre.
What is known is that he played a significant part in those recent ceasefire negotiations, brokered with the help of Egypt's beleaguered Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Oh, and I guess the fact that he hasn't been able to return to Palestine for fear of being arrested or assassinated for over three and a half decades suggests that the Israeli authorities consider him somewhat of a threat.
When Meshaal did finally return to Gaza on Friday, he reportedly fell to his knees, kissed the ground and wept.
In Gaza City, crowds waited in restless anticipation for his arrival. Masked gunmen from the Al-Qassam Brigades – Hamas’s armed wing – lined the streets, keeping the crowds in check. Mashal's visit coincided with Hamas's 25th birthday celebrations. Back in 1987, the first Palestinian intifada in Gaza's Jabalia Camp began their uprising against the Israeli occupation.
Eventually, Meshaal arrived in a fast-moving cavalcade, sat atop a vehicle next to Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s Prime Minister. Mashal and Haniyeh grinned, waved and pumped their fists as the crowds roared their approval.
Meshaal and Haniyeh embarked on a quick, raucous tour of the capital. They visited the house of Hamas military general Ahmed Jabari, whose assassination by Israel on the 14th of November, 2012 sparked an escalation in the violence. (At least 162 Palestinians and six Israelis died in the eight-day confrontation.) Mashal also visited the rubble of the Dalou family’s house. Ten members of the family were killed, along with two neighbours, when Israel targeted the property with an airstrike on the 18th of November.
As the Israelis' bombardment of Gaza, codenamed Operation Pillar of Defense, relents, Meshaal's visit acts as a demonstration that Hamas has progressed into an international political force – not a terrorist syndicate deserving of instant assassination.
On Saturday, Hamas celebrated its birthday with a rally in Gaza City's Qatiba Square. Hundreds of thousands of people came out for the event despite the driving rain, and Mashal arrived onstage to address the vast, jostling crowds, telling them that: "Palestine is ours; from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession of an inch of the land."
The exiled former leader didn't push his luck by hanging around too long in Gaza. After taking in the billowing vista of bright green Hamas flags, he had left the Strip by Monday afternoon, presumably to return to his bolt-hole in Qatar. (An occasional Fatah flag could also be glimpsed in the crowd at the rally, offering some credence to the idea that Palestine's two rival political factions are moving closer together.)
On Sunday evening, Israeli F-16 fighters tore through the air over Gaza City and the lights of Israeli warships shone brightly out at sea, a reminder to Gaza and Hamas of the mighty military power that surrounds them.
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