Hamas chief visits Gaza for first time

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RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- The exiled Hamas chief broke into tears yesterday as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first visit, a landmark trip reflecting his militant group's growing international acceptance and its defiance of Israel.

Khaled Mashaal, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads the Islamic group from Qatar, crossed the Egyptian border. Once on Gazan soil, he prostrated himself in a gesture of thanksgiving, recited a traditional Islamic prayer and kissed the ground.

He was greeted by a crowd of Hamas officials and representatives of Hamas' rival Fatah party.

Thousands of Hamas supporters lined the streets as Mashaal, 56, and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by.

That the visit took place at all is a window on the changing climate of the Middle East and the balance of power among the factions and nations.

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Hamas has received a boost from the rise of its parent movement, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, following Arab Spring revolts -- especially in Egypt. Deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak barely tolerated Hamas, cooperating with Israel on a blockade of Gaza after Hamas overran it in 2007.

Israel, along with the United States and European Union, lists Hamas as a terror organization because of its history of attacks, including suicide bombings, against Israelis.

Egypt's new Brotherhood-dominated regime has welcomed Hamas leaders, negotiating a truce to end an eight-day flare-up between Hamas and Israel last month. Hamas trumpeted that as a victory, despite the new wave of death and destruction in the territory under its control from Israeli airstrikes meant to stop daily Palestinian rocket attacks.

More significantly, in another precedent-setting series of events, the Egyptian prime minister and other foreign diplomats visited Gaza during the fighting, crossing in from Egypt, just as Mashaal did yesterday.

Israel, which is reluctantly coming to terms with the shifting Palestinian power balance, mostly kept silent on the visit. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among various Hamas leaders. "Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," Yigal Palmor said.

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