Feted in Gaza, Hamas leader to attend "victory rally"

Fri Dec 7, 2012 6:23pm EST
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By Crispian Balmer and Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - After receiving a hero's welcome on his return from decades in exile, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal will attend a rally in Gaza on Saturday to mark the founding of his Islamist group and celebrate "victory" over Israel.

At least 200,000 Palestinians are expected to attend the outdoor event, which is likely to be used by Meshaal to promote Hamas's growing stature in the Arab world and push the case for reconciliation with its secular political rival, Fatah.

Meshaal, 56, is on his first visit to the Gaza Strip and was moved to tears on Friday by the ecstatic reception he received from flag-waving crowds as he toured the tiny territory, which is home to 1.7 million Palestinians.

His trip comes just two weeks after Hamas fought an eight-day conflict with Israel that killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis and ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

Hamas claims it won the conflagration. Israel disputes this, saying it not only killed the Islamist group's military commander but also caused significant damage to its arsenal of rockets. The Israeli media largely ignored his visit to Gaza.

There is no denying the fighting boosted Hamas's standing in the region, winning it the support of Arab neighbors, many of whom used to treat the group as a pariah before the Arab Spring uprisings ushered in several sympathetic Islamist governments.

"Israel must now be fuming as it watches this Gaza victory," said Abu Waleed, 52, as he stood in a crowd on Friday, waiting to catch a glimpse of Meshaal, who survived a 1997 assassination attempt by Israeli Mossad agents in Jordan.

The rally on Saturday commemorates the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel in December 1987.   Continued...

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal (2nd R) gestures to the crowd as he rides in a car beside senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (R) in Gaza City December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah