RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — The image of Hamas' long-exiled chief triumphantly walking around the Gaza Strip, flashing victory signs beside Islamic militant leaders Friday, illustrates how the group's defiance of Israel is forcing a change in Palestinian politics.
Buoyed by the rise of fellow Islamists in Egypt, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and his allies are confronting Israel with the specter of a change in the balance of power between the two rival Palestinian factions — Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah.
Mashaal, 56, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads Hamas from the Gulf state of Qatar, broke into tears Friday as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first-ever visit.
Once on Gazan soil after crossing the border from Egypt, he prostrated himself in a gesture of thanks, He then recited a traditional Islamic prayer and kissed the ground.
Thousands of supporters lined the streets as Mashaal and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by, waving and flashing victory signs.
Mashaal's visit would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. He would have been an easy target for Israel. Fifteen years ago, Mashaal was nearly assassinated in Jordan by Israeli agents who squirted a deadly poison in his ear, narrowly escaping after the U.S. forced Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as Israel's prime minister, to provide the antidote.
On Friday, Mashaal referred to the assassination attempt by "the foolish Netanyahu," saying, "God was stronger than him and his conspiracy."
But a Nov. 21 cease-fire agreement, negotiated by Egypt, has forced Israel to leave Hamas leaders alone and negotiate, albeit indirectly, with the Islamic militant group sworn to its destruction.
It appears unlikely that Hamas would ever agree to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The U.S. and European Union have joined Israel in listing Hamas as a terror organization because of its history of attacks aimed at civilians, including suicide bombings inside buses, restaurants and other public places.
But with Israel's relations at an all-time low with Abbas, the Jewish state might be faced with a tough choice.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, frozen since 2008, seem to have collapsed altogether. Abbas's recent success at the U.N., where he won recognition of a de facto state, angered the Israeli government, which insists Palestinian statehood should be reached through a peace agreement and talks.
Mashaal's visit came just two weeks ago after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza violence in four years.
Hamas perceives it came out on top in the fighting because it managed to hold its own despite heavy Israeli airstrikes. It succeeded in maintaining an almost constant barrage of rocket attacks on Israeli cities, with some exploding in the Jewish heartland for the first time near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Millions of Israelis were in range of the Palestinian attacks.
Eight days of fighting ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire that stipulated Israel would stop targeting militants. That, along with unprecedented support from Egypt, allowed Mashaal to make the visit without fear.
As a result of that truce, Israel, which officially shuns Hamas as a terrorist group because of suicide bombings and other attacks against civilians, is now conducting indirect talks with Hamas through Egypt.
In a sign of how touchy Israel is on the issue, Danny Danon, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud party, denied that indirect talks were taking place.
"We speak with Hamas in the only language they understand which is weapons," Danon said.
"Gaza is heating up as a greenhouse for terrorism and I have no doubt that Mashaal did not come to promote peace but rather to promote violence against Israel," he said.
Hamas has received a boost from the rise of its parent movement, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, following Arab Spring revolts — especially in Egypt.
Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak barely tolerated Hamas. He cooperated with Israel on a blockade of Gaza after 2007, when Hamas seized control of the territory in bloody street battles from Abbas' Fatah faction.
Since then Palestinians have been split, with Hamas ruling Gaza and Fatah ruling parts of the West Bank.
Israel, which is reluctantly coming to terms with the recent shifting Palestinian power balance, mostly kept silent on Mashaal's 48-hour visit to Gaza. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among various Hamas leaders. "Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," said the spokesman, Yigal Palmor.
Thousands of masked Hamas militants deployed throughout Gaza to protect Mashaal's convoy, with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and anti-aircraft weaponry in tow.
During Friday's visit, which was timed for the 25th anniversary of Hamas' founding, Mashaal also paid homage at the house of the group's spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, who was paralyzed in a childhood accident and killed by a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter on March 22, 2004.
The assassination came at a time of heavy Israeli-Palestinian fighting, with Israeli military operations against Palestinians militants and a wave of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel.
"The resistance was launched from this humble house, Yassin the giant of Jihad operated from here. We pledge to continue his path," Mashaal said.
Deitch reported from Jerusalem.