Hamas leader Mashaal set to visit Gaza: Official

The leader of Gaza`s ruling Hamas group will visit the Palestinian territory for the first time.

Gaza City: The leader of Gaza`s ruling Hamas group will visit the Palestinian territory for the first time, an official said on Saturday, a sign of increasing boldness of the Islamic militant movement after it held its own against an Israeli military offensive.

Khaled Mashaal was set to arrive in the Gaza Strip next week by crossing the border from Egypt to mark Hamas` 25th anniversary and congratulate its leaders and fighters for battling Israel during the recent eight-day offensive, according to a senior Hamas official in Gaza. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Mashaal previously had been prevented from crossing into Gaza by longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. But Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, has risen to power.

Mashaal has led Hamas since 1996, helping to build the Iranian-backed movement into a potent force. Under his leadership, Hamas carried out numerous suicide bombings and other attacks on buses, cafes and other public places that killed hundreds of Israelis during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. The group has been branded a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the European Union.

He also survived an Israeli assassination attack in Jordan in 1997. Until recently, he was based in Syria but after civil war broke out there relocated to Qatar.

Hamas overtook Gaza from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas` Fatah party in 2007. It has yet to reconcile with Fatah, which rules the West Bank.

The announcement of Mashaal`s Gaza visit comes after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly Thursday to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem as a non-member observer state.

Abbas has said he hopes the UN bid with help restart frozen peace talks with Israel over a future Palestinian state. But he refuses to negotiate so long as Israeli settlement construction continues. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says peace talks must resume immediately but without preconditions.

The day after the vote, Israel responded to UN recognition of a Palestinian state, deciding to build 3,000 more homes for Jews in the West Bank where the Palestinians want to build their future state.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel and is still committed to its destruction. It did not interfere with the UN bid for statehood, and its supporters joined some of the celebrations that followed the announcement.

Israel and Hamas are observing a truce that ended eight days of cross-border fighting in November. It was the bloodiest fighting between Israel and Gaza militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas in four years.

Israel says it launched the offensive to curb daily Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza at Israeli cities that had intensified in the months before. More than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the fighting.