Updated Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 11:10 AM
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal set foot in the Gaza Strip for the first time Friday, emerging from the Egyptian border with his hand over his heart and telling jubilant supporters that his visit marked a new era in the pursuit of Palestinian independence.
Though Mashaal has led the Islamist militant group since 2004, traveling to its Gaza-based home was unthinkable just a month ago because of fears that Israel might assassinate him as it did his two predecessors.
But the Nov. 21 cease-fire agreement that ended an eight-day clash with Israel emboldened Mashaal to take a victory lap through the seaside territory, culminating Saturday with a celebration to mark the group's 25th anniversary.
"I say I'm returning to Gaza even though I have never been before because it's always been in my heart," he told the crowd.
The visit illustrates Hamas' rising political clout in a Middle East reshaped by the Arab Spring. But it also has many wondering how the group will use its newfound prominence, and what role Mashaal will play.
Mashaal, a West Bank native who spent most of his life as a refugee or in exile, was expected to step down as head of the political bureau in the coming months, after secret Hamas elections to select a new leader.
He leads a more moderate, pragmatic Hamas faction against a rival group of Gaza-based hard-liners. He has insisted he no longer wants the job.
Yet on the heels of the recent clash with Israel, some predict Mashaal, 56, will want to remain at the helm.
During his visit, he looked and talked more like someone running for office than someone getting ready to fade away. "This is just the beginning," Mashaal said, adding that his visit to Gaza felt like a rebirth. "Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah, Jerusalem and then Haifa and Jaffa." He was referring to, in order, the West Bank city that houses the Palestinian Authority headquarters, the city both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their capital, and two Israeli cities with large Arab populations.
Some in Hamas' leadership are lobbying for him to stay. "He's unique, with a good political mind and support from all the factions," said Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad. "I wish he'd continue."
The next Hamas leader will play a significant role in determining the intensity of the conflict with Israel as well as the possible reconciliation with Fatah, Hamas' rival Palestinian party in the West Bank.
Mashaal, who recently relocated from the chaos in Syria to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, is a leading proponent of ending the division with the secular Fatah, and says he would accept a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, which some view as de facto recognition of Israel.
And though he refuses to give up armed resistance, he supports signing a long-term cease-fire agreement. At one point Friday, members of the crowd passed him a rifle, expecting him to hold it over his head in a sign of military triumph. He shook his head and brushed it aside.
MAHMUD HAMS / AP
Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, left, and Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh wave during a parade after Mashaal's arrival in Gaza City on Friday.