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 lined up to meet him in warm December sun.
Mashaal praised the people of Gaza and the political factions in his first ever speech on Palestinian soil. “We politicians are in debt to the people of Gaza,” he said.
The leader was briefly tearful as he was welcomed by Gaza’s Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Mashaal 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.”
Haniyeh welcomed Mashaal’s arrival as a historic moment in Palestinian history.
Mashaal left the West Bank in 1967, at age 11.
“All Palestinians will eventually return to their homeland. Khaled Mashaal is returning after a victory,” said veteran Hamas strategist Mahmoud Al-Zahar.
Mashaal will stay for a little more than 48 hours in the coastal enclave, which Hamas has ruled since a 2007 war with Fatah that rules the West Bank. Hamas politburo members Mousa Abu Marzouq, Izzat al-Rishq, and Saleh al-Arouri accompanied him.
Hamas plans an open-air rally on Saturday to promote what it says was last month’s victory against Israel, and at the same time commemorate the 25th anniversary of the group’s founding.