Arriving in the Palestinian coastal enclave of Gaza last Friday for his first ever visit there, Hamas Chief-in-Exile Khaled Mashaal triumphantly walked through the area, flashing victory signs beside Islamic militant leaders, in an act designed to illustrate how the group’s defiance of Israel is forcing a change in Palestinian politics.
Buoyed by the emergence of the Arab Spring and the meteoric rise to power of his fellow Islamists in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mashaal and his allies are now confronting Israel with the specter of a change in the balance of power between the two rival Palestinian factions – Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah.
Leading Hamas from the Gulf state of Qatar, Mashaal, 56, left his birthplace in the West Bank as a child in 1967 and has not returned. After crossing over the Rafah border from Egypt into Gaza, Mashaal broke down in tears, prostrated himself in a gesture of thanks, kissed the ground and recited a traditional Islamic prayer.
Friday’s visit was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas. Mashaal also paid homage at the house of the group’s spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, who was paralyzed in a childhood accident and killed by a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter on March 22, 2004. The assassination came at a time of heavy Israeli-Palestinian fighting, with Israeli military operations against Palestinian militants and a wave of Hamas suicide bombings in Israel. “The resistance was launched from this humble house, Yassin the giant of jihad operated from here. We pledge to continue his path,” Mashaal said.
Thousands of supporters waving and flashing victory signs lined the streets as Mashaal and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by. Mashaal’s visit would have been untenable just a few weeks ago, as he would have been an easy target for Israel during the 8-day war between Hamas terrorists and Israeli air forces in Gaza. Fifteen years ago, Mashaal was nearly assassinated in Jordan by Israeli agents who squirted a deadly poison in his ear. The Hamas leader narrowly escaped death, after the United States compelled Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as Israel’s prime minister, to provide the antidote.
On Friday, Mashaal referred to the assassination attempt by “the foolish Netanyahu,” saying, “G-d was stronger than him and his conspiracy.” A November 21st cease-fire agreement, however, negotiated by Egypt, has left Israel with no options other than to leave Hamas leaders alone and negotiate, albeit indirectly, with the Islamic terrorist group sworn to its destruction. Because Hamas has vowed that it would never agree to sit down for peace talks with Israel, the United States and the European Union have joined Israel in listing Hamas as a terror organization because of its history of attacks aimed at civilians, including suicide bombings inside buses, restaurants and other public places.
Mashaal’s visit came just two weeks after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza violence in four years, and peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, frozen since 2008, seem to have collapsed altogether. PA President Abbas’s recent gambit at the UN, where he won recognition of a de facto state, angered the Israeli government, which insists Palestinian statehood should be reached through a peace agreement and talks.
Hamas claims a “stunning victory” in the latest round of fighting with Israel because it managed to “hold its own” despite heavy Israeli airstrikes. It succeeded in maintaining an almost constant barrage of rocket attacks on Israeli cities, with some exploding in the Jewish heartland for the first time near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Millions of Israelis were in range of the Palestinian attacks.
“We speak with Hamas in the only language they understand, which is weapons,” said Danny Danon, the deputy speaker of the Knesset in Israel and a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party. “Gaza is heating up as a greenhouse for terrorism and I have no doubt that Mashaal did not come to promote peace but rather to promote violence against Israel,” he said.
Israel, however, who has reluctantly come to terms with the recent shifting Palestinian power balance, mostly kept silent on Mashaal’s 48-hour visit to Gaza. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among various Hamas leaders. “”Hamas is Hamas is Hamas. It doesn’t matter who heads it, Hamas is still a terror organization. Its position is known – violence as the only tool to promote its racist and extremist ideology,” said the spokesman, Yigal Palmor.
In 2007, deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who barely tolerated Hamas, cooperated with Israel on a blockade of Gaza, when Hamas wrested control of the territory in bloody street battles from Abbas’ Fatah faction. Hamas has now received a boost of confidence from its parent movement, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, following Arab Spring revolts, especially in Egypt.
“I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza,” Mashaal told reporters on Friday, as he stood alongside senior Hamas member Mousa Abu Marzouk and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “I ask G-d to give me martyrdom one day on this land.” Mashaal also appeared before the charred car of Hamas militant chief Ahmad al-Jabari, who was the target of assassination by Israel at the beginning of last month’s round of violence.
Mashaal said he prayed for the day when “all of Palestine is liberated.” He went on to say with great emotion that “Gaza is always in my heart” and promised the thousands gathered for the rally that his next visits would be “to Ramallah, Jerusalem, Haifa, and Jaffa.”
Though widely lauded amongst Palestinians, Mashaal’s visit to Gaza is nevertheless skittish for some, because of Palestinian political infighting. Considered more pragmatic than Hamas’ Gaza-based hard-line leaders, Mashaal forged a reconciliation agreement with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the West Bank. The Gaza-based leadership has made it clear that it is unsupportive of the agreement, and has held up implementing it.
Palestinian officials in the West Bank expressed hope that Mashaal’s visit would help finalize the Palestinian political unity deal, and while in Gaza, Mashaal appeared sensitive to the fact that Abbas still has not visited there since Hamas took control of the region from his Fatah Party in 2007.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement that Mashaal’s visit is “fruit of the victory achieved by the resistance over the occupation.” As part of Mashaal’s tour of Gaza, the Hamas leader addressed a rally of thousands in Gaza City where the strip was decorated with the trademark Hamas green flags. A big stage had been erected at the main city square, complete with a huge replica of a domestic M75 rocket that Hamas had fired into Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during last month’s conflict.
Mashaal controlled Hamas from exile in Damascus from 2004 until January of 2012. He left the Syrian capital after being disillusioned by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war against Sunni Muslim rebels backed by the Iranians. He now shuttles between Qatar and Cairo, although in earlier years, his ties with Damascus and Tehran catapulted him to power. Because Mashaal’s abrupt exit from Syria undermined his position within Hamas, those ties with Iran and Syria have now been damaged and, smelling a power vacuum, rivals based within the Gaza Strip started to assert their authority. However, the exiled leader soon gained the upper hand in the initiative in the November war against Israel, with the Egyptian backing helping him to secure a ceasefire.
As the leader of the group’s decision-making bureau since 1996, Mashaal 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 was 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.
Speaking in bellicose terms to the roaring crowd of hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Gazans that greeted him on Saturday for the rally to celebrate Hamas’ 25th year of operations, Mashaal, along with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, emerged to the stage from a door built into the massive replica of the M75 rocket fired by Hamas at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“We are not giving up any inch of Palestine. It will remain Islamic and Arab for us and nobody else. Jihad and armed resistance is the only way,” Mashaal said, referring to holy war. “We cannot recognize Israel’s legitimacy.” Mashaal said he would continue to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, making an oblique reference to future kidnappings of Israeli soldiers which in the past has proven to be a highly successful bargaining chip. Over the years Israel has released thousands of these hard-core Palestinian terrorists to secure the release of their soldiers. “From the sea to the river, from north to south, we will not give up any part of Palestine. It is our country, our right and our homeland,” said the Hamas chief. “We are all one,” he added, referring to Palestinians residing in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and inside Israel. “We are all united in the way of resistance.”
Jubilant Hamas supporters braved the rain to attend the event and some parents brought children dressed in the traditional Hamas military uniforms. Palestinian sources reported that the terror organization’s supporters from throughout the region had arrived in Gaza to participate in the rally. Israel Radio said supporters had come from across the Middle East, and that 100 Muslims had also traveled from the United Kingdom.
A spokesman for Hamas’s military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, warned Israelis to prepare their passports. “We fought the Zionist entity with limited power,” he said. “What will happen when we fight with all our might? Zionists, you should prepare your passports and get ready to disappear,” the spokesman added. In a special message released in honor of their 25th anniversary, Hamas leaders vowed to continue the path of resistance and jihad “to liberate Palestine.” “The great crimes perpetrated against us by the Zionist occupation only fuel our desire to resist and fight,” read the message.