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Hamas Leader Khaled Meshal Returns To Gaza Strip After 45-Year Exile

For the first time since his exile in 1967, the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, returned to the Gaza Strip today. He arrived through the border with Egypt, kissing the ground in celebration and as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Meshal received a hero's welcome as well as military one.

It was a bright, dusty day and as Meshal's convoy worked its way through the narrow streets of Gaza, he was flanked by the military arm of Hamas. Some of the members of the al-Qassam brigades were wearing black masks, others held rocket-propelled grenades. Some of them arrived in pick-up trucks outfitted with machine guns.

Israel tried but failed to kill Meshal in 1997. Reuters posits that the show of force by Hamas' part had something to do with that, despite the fact there were no indications from Israel that it would attempt a strike against Meshal today.

"I consider this moment my third birth, and I pray to God that my fourth birth will be the moment when all of Palestine is liberated," Meshal said, according to the BBC. "Gaza has always been in my heart."

Reuters frames the visit as the return of an "emboldened leader."

The New York Times explains it best:

"His visit was to celebrate the 25th anniversary on Saturday of the founding of Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has also risen to power in neighboring, vital Egypt and has been a key to the Arab 'awakening' that has shaken old alliances throughout the Middle East.

"Mr. Meshal also will celebrate what Hamas considers a victory over Israel in the recent conflict here, eight days of fighting featuring Israeli airstrikes and shelling and Hamas rocket launches against Israel. The Israeli government considers that it sharply reduced Hamas' military capacity, destroying storehouses of rockets and weapons and killing the operational commander of the Hamas forces, Ahmed al-Jaabari, at the outset of the fighting."

Hamas and Israel negotiated a cease-fire through Egypt, which the Times says, could represent greater international recognition for Hamas.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Fatah accepted Hamas' invitation to celebrate the anniversary. This is important because Fatah, the party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, controls the West Bank and is Hamas' rival party. The invitation and acceptance may signal a step toward unification.

The BBC reports this is a three-day tour. The higlight is expected to be a huge rally on Saturday:

"Mr. Meshaal is scheduled to address the rally in Gaza City and will talk about the organisation's future strategy towards Israel.

"He is also expected to discuss reconciliation moves with the Fatah movement, which Hamas removed from Gaza by force in 2007 after winning elections there. Fatah now rules parts of the West Bank."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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