Hamas leader set to visit Gaza

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GAZA CITY -- The leader of Gaza's ruling Hamas group will visit the Palestinian territory for the first time, an official said Saturday, a sign of the increasing boldness of the Islamic militant movement after it held its own against an Israeli military offensive.

Khaled Mashaal was set to arrive in the Gaza Strip next week by crossing the border from Egypt to mark Hamas' 25th anniversary and congratulate its leaders and fighters for battling Israel during the recent eight-day offensive, according to a senior Hamas official in Gaza. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

Mashaal previously had been prevented from crossing into Gaza by longtime Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. But Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has close ties to Hamas, has risen to power.

Mashaal has led Hamas since 1996, helping to build the Iranian-backed movement into a potent force. Under his leadership, Hamas carried out numerous suicide bombings and other attacks on buses, cafes and other public places that killed hundreds of Israelis during a Palestinian uprising a decade ago. The group has been branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

He also survived an Israeli assassination attack in Jordan in 1997. Until recently, he was based in Syria but after civil war broke out there he relocated to Qatar.

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Hamas overtook Gaza from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party in 2007. It has yet to reconcile with Fatah, which rules the West Bank.

The announcement of Mashaal's Gaza visit comes after the United Nations voted overwhelmingly Thursday to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem as a nonmember observer state.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and is committed to its destruction.

Israel and Hamas are observing a truce that ended eight days of cross-border fighting last month. More than 160 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the bloodiest fighting between Israel and Gaza militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas in four years.

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