GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The supreme Hamas leader's first-ever visit to the Gaza Strip this weekend signals growing regional acceptance of the Islamic militant movement in charge of the once isolated territory and grudging acquiescence by Israel.
Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, who has positioned himself as a pragmatist and enjoys the backing of regional heavyweights Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, could also use the trip to lobby for re-election.
Mashaal is to arrive Friday for a three-day tour, with Hamas' 25th anniversary rally on Saturday set as the centerpiece. He'll visit the homes of two Hamas icons assassinated by Israel, military chief Ahmed Jabari and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.
His landmark visit comes two weeks after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza fighting in four years, which included the killing of Jabari as well as hundreds of Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets and an equal number of Gaza rockets fired into Israel.
Hamas has portrayed itself as the victor because Israel agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce after eight days, instead of sending ground troops, as it initially threatened.
On Thursday, workers set up the stage for the anniversary rally, including a 13-meter-high (43-foot-high) replica of an M-75, a missile Hamas has fired deep into Israel. "Made in Gaza," was written on the rocket.
Mashaal, whose family left the West Bank when he was a child, grew up in Kuwait and moved to Qatar this year after abandoning his longtime base in Syria.
His visit coincides with the last stretch of secret internal Hamas elections that began seven months ago.
Mashaal, who has headed Hamas' decision-making political bureau since 1996, said earlier this year he is not seeking re-election, but some suggested his Gaza visit could signal a change of heart and an attempt to mollify Gaza Hamas hardliners with whom he clashed months ago.
Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri said he believes the main purpose of the trip is an attempt supported by Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to get Mashaal re-elected. "Egypt, Qatar and Turkey want Khaled Mashaal, simply because he is a moderate and can get things done between the West and the Islamists," said al-Masri.
Israel, meanwhile, appears to be looking the other way.
Israel considers Hamas a terror organization, refuses to deal with it directly and imposed a Gaza border blockade after the Hamas takeover of the territory in 2007. However, since its Gaza offensive last month, Israel has conducted indirect talks with Hamas, through Egypt, on a truce and a further easing of the Gaza border restrictions, already relaxed somewhat in recent years.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Thursday that Israel has no say over who enters Gaza from Egypt. "We have no position on different individuals within Hamas," he said when asked about the Mashaal trip. "Hamas is Hamas is Hamas."
Fifteen years ago, Mashaal came close to being assassinated by Israel. In 1997, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term, ordered Mashaal killed in retaliation for Hamas suicide bombings in Israel. Israeli agents grabbed Mashaal in the streets of the Jordanian capital of Amman and injected him with poison, but were caught, forcing Netanyahu to send an antidote that saved Mashaal's life. Netanyahu also had to release Yassin, the Hamas spiritual leader, to bring the agents back home.
While Israel has not publicly challenged Mashaal's Gaza trip, Hamas' smaller sister group Islamic Jihad said Thursday that Israel is trying to prevent its exiled leaders from joining the Hamas chief on his journey. Two members of Islamic Jihad said Israel relayed warnings through Egypt that it would consider the Gaza truce over if Islamic Jihad's top two leaders in exile attempted to enter Gaza.
The Islamic Jihad members spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to embarrass Egypt. Israel's Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have received money and weapons from Iran, Israel's arch-enemy. During last month's cross-border fighting, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, including Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that landed close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel's heartland. After the cease-fire, Mashaal thanked Iran for its military support of Gaza.
At the same time, Hamas under Mashaal has been drifting away from the Iranian-Syrian camp, particularly after Hamas' break with Syrian President Bashar Assad this year over his brutal crackdown at home.
Mashaal has been trying to move Hamas closer to its parent movement, the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni group. The Brotherhood, a rival of Shiite Muslim-led Iran, rose to power in Egypt and Tunisia after last year's Arab Spring uprisings. Mashaal also has close ties with Turkey and Qatar.
Both Egypt and Qatar have tried to broker a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, from whom Hamas seized Gaza more than five years ago. The most recent deal was signed this year by Abbas and Mashaal in the Qatari capital of Doha, but Mashaal couldn't move forward because of an uproar by Hamas hardliners in Gaza.
Senior figures in Gaza, including Hamas strongman Mahmoud Zahar, complained at the time that they hadn't been consulted. But mainly they balked at the idea of restoring some of Abbas' authority in Gaza ahead of new elections — as envisioned by the Doha deal.
Saeb Erekat, an Abbas aide in the West Bank, said Thursday that the Mashaal visit to Gaza might help a unity deal. "This would give a chance to everyone in Gaza to hear what the agreement in Doha was about," he said.
However, the Mashaal visit and Hamas' successful dare of Israel — firing rockets toward Tel Aviv without triggering an Israeli ground offensive — also signaled that the Gaza branch of Hamas is becoming increasingly influential at the expense of the exiles.
In the past, the exile-based political bureau was the main decision-maker and conduit for funds. In running Gaza, Hamas leaders there are increasingly making fateful decisions for the movement.
With Hamas basking in its self-declared victory over Israel, the group might be even less willing than before to compromise with Abbas for the sake of a unity deal. At the same time, reconciliation faces a host of other obstacles, including opposition from Abbas' Fatah movement and lack of a clear path forward, including how to merge rival security forces.
Hamas leaders in Gaza portrayed the Mashaal visit as part of an extended celebration of what they see as their military triumph. "Mashaal is coming at a time when we are celebrating victory in the war," said Salah Bardawil, a local Hamas leader. "A Hamas leader should come and celebrate with his people."
Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank