Rafah: The exiled Hamas chief broke into tears on Friday as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first-ever visit, a landmark trip reflecting his militant group`s growing international acceptance and its defiance of Israel.
Khaled Mashaal, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads the Islamic militant movement from Qatar, crossed the Egyptian border, kissed the ground, and was greeted by a crowd of Hamas officials and representatives of Hamas` rival Fatah party.
Mashaal, 56, was also welcomed by a group of Palestinian children of Gaza militants killed by Israel in recent years, wearing military-style uniforms.
Thousands of Hamas supporters lined the streets as Mashaal and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by, waving and flashing victory signs.
That the visit took place at all is a window on the changing climate of the Middle East and the balance of power among the factions and nations.
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, cooperating with Israel on a blockade of Gaza after Hamas overran it in 2007.
Israel, along with the US and European Union, lists Hamas as a terror organization because of its history of attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israelis. Controlling most entrances to Gaza, Israel prevented most prominent diplomats from entering the territory after the violent Hamas takeover.
Egypt`s new Brotherhood-dominated regime has welcomed Hamas leaders, negotiating a truce to end an eight-day flare-up between Hamas and Israel last month.
Hamas trumpeted that as a victory, despite the new wave of death and destruction in the territory under its control in Israeli airstrikes, meant to stop daily Palestinian rocket attacks.
More significantly, in another precedent-setting series of events, the Egyptian prime minister and other foreign diplomats visited Gaza during the fighting, crossing in from Egypt, just as Mashaal did today.
"I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza," Mashaal told reporters as he stood alongside senior Hamas member Mousa Abu Marzouk and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. "I ask God to give me martyrdom one day on this land."
Mashaal appeared before the charred car of Hamas militant chief Ahmad Jabari, assassinated by Israel at the beginning of last month`s round of violence. The eight-day conflict was the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza fighting in four years.