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Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is walking on Palestinian territory for the first time in 45 years. He's in town to celebrate his party’s 25th anniversary and the end of a week-long conflagration with Israel last month.
But his visit could also signal growing confidence within the Islamist party – which Israel, the United States, and the European Union consider a terrorist organization – over its position in the tumultuous Middle East.
Mr. Meshaal, who left the West Bank as a boy in 1967 and had not visited Gaza before today, has led Hamas for over 15 years, primarily from the party's offices in Damascus, Syria. But he was in Egypt late last month for negotiations of the cease-fire that ended the eight-day conflict with Israel. Some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the violence, the Telegraph reports, the worst fighting in four years. The New York Times reports that Hamas' negotiation of “a cease-fire with Israel through the agency of the Egyptians … may represent an important step toward becoming a more recognized international player and representative of at least a portion of the Palestinian people.”
Meshaal has since spoken of the possibility of reaching out to other political factions within the Palestinian territory, including the Fatah party, which was pushed out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Al Jazeera reports Hamas invited Fatah officials to a celebration rally in Gaza tomorrow, part of Meshaal’s whirlwind trip.
"There is a new mood that allows us to achieve reconciliation," Meshaal told Al Jazeera.
According to the Times, “The Fatah movement controls the West Bank, which Israel still occupies, and the rivalry between the two groups is the defining principle of Palestinian politics, despite continuing efforts by Egypt to bring about a reconciliation.”
The most recent violence between Israel and Palestine started on Nov. 14 with an exchange of rockets and airstrikes. Since then, the Palestinian Authority gained United Nation’s recognition as a non-member observer state (something that Meshaal thanked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for, reports the BBC), and Israel announced the expansion of settlement construction on the West Bank.
Israel says its airstrikes did substantial damage to Hamas in November, killing Ahmed al-Jaabari, its military chief, and diminishing its supply of weapons, reports the Telegraph. But according to The Associated Press, Hamas leaders declared victory in Gaza after the truce was brokered in November. “While Israel said it inflicted heavy damage on the militants, Gaza's Hamas rulers claimed that Israel's decision not to send ground troops into the territory, as it had four years ago, was a sign of a new Hamas deterrent power.”
A spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry told Bloomberg today that “it doesn’t matter who they are, Hamas still stands for violence, bloodshed, extremism and racism.”
But the November Israeli-Palestinian face-off highlighted a change in the regional attitude toward Hamas, one that The Christian Science Monitor’s Egypt correspondent writes may be attributed to the aftermath of last year’s Arab uprisings. Political parties such as Hamas now have more support from Arab leaders, and the role Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, the Turkish prime minister, Qatari emir, and Hamas’ exiled Meshaal played in brokering the cease-fire last month is one example of this.
…[I]n the post-“Arab spring” Middle East, the region looks much different, and Hamas has found a new swell of support as it faces Israel. Mr. Mubarak, ousted in a popular uprising in 2011, has been replaced by an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead of a mostly sealed Gaza-Egypt border, it has become difficult to keep track of all the solidarity trips made to Gaza by Arab officials. ...
The uprisings that displaced pro-Western autocrats who toed the US line on Israel have brought to power Islamist governments more friendly to Hamas, as well as more sensitive to public opinion typically supportive of the Palestinian cause. This has reshaped the regional dynamics, leaving Israel increasingly isolated. These new governments, along with Turkey and Qatar, have formed a vocal block of opposition to Israel's assault on Gaza.
“This is a significant change in the Arab reaction,” says Khalil Al Anani, a scholar at Durham University in Britain. The new Arab nations ready to take a stronger stance against Israel could change Israel’s calculations in favor of more restraint.
“It shows that Gaza is not alone. This will put pressure on Israel, and they [Arab states] can move further if they want, by lobbying internationally and putting a spotlight on Israel and its lack of interest in peace," he says.
“The visit of Mashaal to Gaza is one of the fruits of the victory Hamas has achieved during the eight-day war on Gaza,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, according to Bloomberg. “Gaza is freed now and will receive whoever visitors it wants.”
Hamas was founded Dec. 14, 1987, after the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. This weekend’s celebrations were moved up to coincide with the first intifada, or uprising, against Israel, reports the Times.
According to the BBC, “Under its charter, Hamas is committed to the destruction of Israel. But the group has also offered a 10-year truce in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from territories it occupied in 1967.”
Meshaal, who reportedly kissed the ground upon entering Gaza from Egypt, is expected to speak at tomorrow’s rally. He also plans to visit the homes of fallen Hamas members including Mr. Jabari and Hamas’ spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.