RAFAH, Gaza Strip The exiled Hamas chief broke into tears 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 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.
He was also welcomed by a group of Palestinian orphans — children of Gaza militants killed by Israel in recent years — wearing military-style uniforms.
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 U.S. 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.