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Long-exiled Hamas leader visits Gaza Strip

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (center) and Ismail Haniyeh (center right), the Hamas prime minister, waved from the roof of a vehicle following Meshaal’s arrival in Rafah.

Ali Ali/EPA

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (center) and Ismail Haniyeh (center right), the Hamas prime minister, waved from the roof of a vehicle following Meshaal’s arrival in Rafah.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The long-exiled leader of the militant group Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, entered Gaza for the first time Friday, a symbolically powerful visit that sought to reinforce the contention by Hamas that it was victorious in its eight-day clash with Israel.

For Mashaal, 56, whom the Israelis tried to assassinate in Jordan in 1997, it was a triumphant day, as Hamas fighters, armed with rifles and wearing balaclavas, lined the streets where he was to travel. He ­entered from Egypt, through the Rafah crossing, an indication of a new alliance with ­Cairo after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, an avowed adver­sary of Hamas.

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‘‘Gaza, with its martyrs, cannot be described in words,’’ he said as he arrived here, with tears in his eyes. ‘‘There are no words to describe Gaza, to describe the heroes, the martyrs, the blood, the mothers who lost their sons.’’

Mashaal, who has spent years in exile and now spends most of his time in Qatar, had never before been to Gaza, but said he felt as if he was returning because ‘‘Gaza has always been in my heart.’’

Mashaal’s visit resonated on multiple levels, reflecting the many changes that have swept the region since the Tunisian revolution, which began in ­December 2010 and ignited the Arab Spring uprisings.

Mashaal was permitted to cross the Egyptian border now that allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, a cousin of Hamas, have come to power in Egypt. At the same time, Hamas tried to use his visit to reinforce the impression that it is ascendant and no longer isolated.

Mashaal arrived in Gaza to celebrate the 25th anniversary Saturday of the founding of Hamas. His visit is a kind of victory for Hamas, which has just negotiated with Israel, however indirectly, for a cease-fire in a bloody conflict last month.

Khaled Mashaal arrived in Gaza to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas.

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His visit also provided a visible unity in Palestinian territory of Hamas in exile, represented by Mashaal, and Hamas on the ground, in the person of the Gazan prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who met him at Rafah and traveled with him through a noisy and celebratory day.

Mashaal fled the West Bank with his family at age 11 after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. He said Friday that he had returned once to the West Bank in 1975, but had not entered Palestinian territory since.

In 1997, when he was in Amman, Jordan, agents from the Israeli intelligence service, posing as Canadian tourists, tried to kill him by injecting him with poison. The agents were captured by Jordanian authorities, and Mashaal lay in a coma until Benjamin Netanyahu, then and now the Israeli prime minister, was pressured to hand over an antidote.

‘‘This is my third birth,’’ Mashaal said. ‘‘The first was my natural birth. The second was when I recovered from the poisoning. I ask God that my fourth birth will be the day we liberate all of Palestine.’’

Later, in an emotional speech to Hamas supporters, Mashaal said: ‘‘Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa.’’

Mashaal also referred to the Palestine of 1949, not of 1967, and said that Palestinian unity would come on ‘‘national principles, of Jerusalem, the right of return, and the West Bank.’’

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