Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, on his first visit to Gaza on Friday, told crowds he hoped his next visit would be to “Jerusalem, Ramallah and a liberated Palestine,” the Bethlehem-based Ma’an news agency reports.
After passing through the Egyptian border crossing, Mashaal knelt on the ground to offer a prayer of thanks and was then greeted by dozens of officials from an array of competing factions, the report said.
Mashaal praised the people of Gaza and was welcomed by Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
He said his visit to Gaza was his "third birth", referring to an assassination attempt by Israeli Mossad agents in 1997 as his previous "re-birth."
"I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine," Mashaal said, according to Ma’an. "Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa.”
Haniyeh welcomed Mashaal's arrival as a historic moment. Hamas denied seeking guarantees via Egyptian contacts with Israel that Mashaal would not be targeted for assassination in Gaza, reported Ma’an.
There was massive security for his arrival, with gun-toting, black-masked guards from Hamas patrolling the streets in open-topped trucks and motorbikes, the report said.
On Thursday it was reported that the leader of the Islamic Jihad terror organization, Ramadan Shalah, cancelled his visit to Gaza after Israel threatened to assassinate him.
Mashaal will visit the home of the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, and the homes of Ahmad al-Jaabari, Hamas’s “chief of staff” and his bodyguard Mohammad al-Hams, who Israel killed on November 14 at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense.
Mashaal will stay for a little more than 48 hours in Gaza, which Hamas has ruled since taking over the region in a bloody 2007 war with rival Fatah. Hamas politburo members Mousa Abu Marzouq, Izzat al-Rishq, and Saleh al-Arouri accompanied him, reported Ma’an.
Hamas plans an open-air rally on Saturday to promote what it claims was last month's victory over Israel and at the same time commemorate the 25th anniversary of the terror group's founding.
In an interview he gave to CNN several weeks ago, Mashaal claimed that Hamas would accept a Palestinian state along the indefensible pre-1967 borders but would refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist.
(Arutz Sheva’s North American Desk is keeping you updated until the start of Shabbat in New York. The time posted automatically on all Arutz Sheva articles, however, is Israeli time.)