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Updated Thursday, December 6, 2012 at 08:31 PM

Exiled Hamas leader will make first trip to Gaza

By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH and KARIN LAUB
The Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The supreme Hamas leader's first visit to the Gaza Strip this weekend signals growing regional acceptance of the Islamic militant movement in charge of the once isolated territory and grudging acquiescence by Israel.

Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, who enjoys the backing of regional heavyweights Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, could also use the trip to lobby for re-election.

Mashaal is to arrive Friday for a three-day tour, with Hamas' 25th anniversary rally Saturday set as the centerpiece.

He'll visit the homes of two Hamas icons slain by Israel, military chief Ahmed Jabari and spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

His visit comes two weeks after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza fighting in four years, which included the killing of Jabari and hundreds of Israeli airstrikes on Hamas targets and an equal number of Gaza rockets fired into Israel.

Hamas has portrayed itself as the victor because Israel agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce after eight days, instead of sending ground troops, as it initially threatened.

On Thursday, workers set up the stage for the anniversary rally, including a 43-foot-high replica of an M-75, a missile Hamas has fired deep into Israel. "Made in Gaza," was written on the rocket.

Mashaal, whose family left the West Bank when he was a child, grew up in Kuwait and moved to Qatar this year after abandoning his longtime base in Syria.

His visit coincides with the last stretch of secret internal Hamas elections that began seven months ago. Mashaal, who has headed Hamas' decision-making political bureau since 1996, said this year he is not seeking re-election. But Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri said he thinks the main purpose of the trip is an attempt supported by Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to get Mashaal re-elected.

Israel, meanwhile, appears to be looking the other way.

Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization and refuses to deal with Hamas directly and imposed a Gaza border blockade after the Hamas takeover of the territory in 2007. However, since its Gaza offensive last month, Israel has conducted indirect talks with Hamas, through Egypt, on a truce and a further easing of the Gaza border restrictions.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Thursday that Israel has no say over who enters Gaza from Egypt. "We have no position on different individuals within Hamas," he said when asked about the Mashaal trip. "Hamas is Hamas is Hamas."



Khaled Mashaal




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