By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Marwa Awad
GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal ended decades of exile on Friday with a triumphal first ever visit to the Gaza Strip that underscored the Islamist group's growing confidence following its latest conflict with Israel.
After passing through the Egyptian border crossing, Meshaal knelt and touched the ground with his forehead, offering up a prayer of thanks. He was then greeted in the warm December sun by dozens of Palestinian officials from an array of factions.
Thousands of supporters lined the streets, which were decked in green Hamas flags, as he drove through the coastal enclave, boisterous resistance songs blasting from loudspeakers and gun shots ringing out in welcome as his motorcade reached the city.
Meshaal will spend barely 48 hours in the territory and attend a mass rally on Saturday that has been billed as both a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and a "victory" celebration following the November fighting.
Israel rejects Hamas's assertion that it won the eight-day conflagration, which left 170 Palestinians and six Israelis dead and was ended by an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
Meshaal said his arrival in Gaza was like a rebirth that followed on from his natural birth in the nearby West Bank in 1956 and a second that was his narrow escape in 1997 from an Israeli assassination squad wielding a poisoned needle.
"I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine," he said, clearly moved by his reception, with uniformed police breaking ranks to try and kiss his hand.
"Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa," he said. Ramallah is in the West Bank, while the latter cities, which have large Arab populations, are in modern-day Israel.
He later visited the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, as well as that of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, the group's military commander, who was killed in a similar air strike last month.
Hamas denied seeking Israeli guarantees that Meshaal would not be targeted in Gaza and massive security was laid on, with gun-toting, black-masked guards from the Hamas military wing patrolling the streets in open-topped trucks and motorbikes.
"This is the most beautiful day in my life," said 27-year-old policeman, Mohammed Abed. "I kissed him on the head."
Meshaal, 56, had been widely understood not to have set foot in the Palestinian territories since he left his native West Bank with his family aged 11. However in his speech he indicated he had returned there for a visit as a teenager 37 years ago.
Hamas has ruled the tiny Gaza Strip and its 1.7 million population since 2007, when it won a brief civil war with its secular rivals Fatah, which still controls the occupied West Bank. Israel had pulled troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
The two main Palestinian factions have tried, often with little enthusiasm, to patch up their differences. Meshaal vowed to push for unity which is longed for by ordinary Palestinians.
"This is a promise from the leadership of Hamas. We will press ahead with reconciliation to end divisions and to stand united against the Zionist occupation," he said on Friday.
The Palestinian movement's founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel but its leaders have at times indicated a willingness to negotiate a prolonged truce in return for a withdrawal to the lines established ahead of the 1967 war, when Israel seized East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank.
Hamas continues to say that it will not recognize the Jewish state officially, and it is viewed as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and most Western governments.
By contrast, the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he wants a permanent peace deal based on 1967 lines. Sidelined during the Gaza fighting, Abbas regained the spotlight last week when he secured de-facto statehood recognition for the Palestinians at the U.N. General Assembly.
Meshaal ran Hamas from exile in Syria from 2004 until January this year when he quit Damascus because of Iranian-backed President Bashar al-Assad's war against Sunni Muslim rebels, whose religion and politics are closer to those of the Palestinians. He now divides his time between Qatar and Cairo.
His abrupt departure from Syria initially weakened his position within Hamas: ties with Damascus and Tehran had made him important, but with those links damaged or broken, rivals based within Gaza had started to assert their authority.
However, he regained the initiative in last month's rocket war with Israel, working closely with Egypt to secure the truce, and although he says he plans to step down soon, few in the Gaza Strip expect him to follow through on that pledge.
In a show of unity, Hamas's Gaza prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, stuck close to Meshaal's side throughout the day.
Israeli media have barely mentioned the exile leader's return. Israeli officials say their week of round-the-clock bombing raids in November had not only killed military chief Jaabari, but also severely depleted Hamas's weapons stockpile.
"They can dance in the streets as much as they like, but their leaders know what damage was inflicted," said a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem, who declined to be named.
However, the conflict clearly boosted Hamas's political standing in the region, winning it the support of Sunni regional powers, such as Qatar, Turkey and Egypt. All dispatched senior delegations to Gaza in a rare and public display of solidarity.
The Arab Spring revolts of the last two years have brought friends of Hamas to power across the Arab world, above all Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, whose long-banned Muslim Brotherhood is spiritual mentor to Hamas.
Meshaal is viewed as more moderate than the local Gaza hierarchy and some Israeli analysts believe that for all the tough rhetoric expected in the coming days, he might well be someone with whom Israel can one day do business.
"From Israel's point of view, Khaled Meshaal now plays a more positive role," said Shlomo Brom, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a research institute based just up the coast in Tel Aviv.
The last Palestinian leader to make a triumphal entrance to Gaza was the late Yasser Arafat, who took the same route back from exile in 1994. The mood then was very different, however. Arafat rode in on a wave of optimism after signing an accord with Israel that promised a final peace within five years.
There is no such expectation of a lasting resolution any time soon, with a growing number of Israeli and Palestinian analysts writing the obituary of that two-state solution.
(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)