Significant ... Khaled Meshal is ''back in the game''. Photo: Reuters
JERUSALEM: Khaled Meshal made his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday. The Hamas leader arrived from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing, kissing the ground in celebration. He told al-Jazeera television his visit marked a ''historic moment''.
It is a symbol of how far the Palestinian Islamist movement, which Israel and the United States have branded a terrorist group, has come since its inception in 1987.
Mr Meshal, often called ''the exiled Hamas leader'', assumed control of the group in 2004, after its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated by Israel.
He has travelled widely to help Hamas garner support across the Arab world and has helped secure the diplomatic support of key Arab states. Analysts call his trip to Gaza a ''watershed moment''.
''Hamas feels the wind of change beneath their wings,'' said Jonathan Spyer, a senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre, a private university in the Israeli city of Herzliya.
''Khaled Meshal's visit to Gaza is significant … it means that Meshal is back in the game.''
In the past year, Mr Meshal has twice announced his retirement, leading many to speculate a rift had grown between the Hamas leadership in Gaza and the leadership abroad.
Mr Meshal's visit to Gaza indicated the movement was united, Mr Spyer said. ''It's not hard to see why. If you look at the process of what used to be called the Arab Spring, you can see what is really a movement of old, decrepit nationalist movements being replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood.''
The influence of Hamas, which sees itself as the Palestinian arm of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, grew when longtime Brotherhood official Mohammed Mursi won Egypt's presidency in June.
Part of a ceasefire deal negotiated by Egypt last month called for a truce between Israel and Hamas as well as an end to targeted assassinations. It was the fear that Israel would target Mr Meshal as it had Sheikh Yassin that had kept him from visiting Gaza.
Mr Meshal, who was born in the West Bank in 1956, moved to Kuwait after the 1967 Six-Day War. He then moved to Jordan, where his link with Hamas began.
Israel will be watching closely to determine whether his influence in Hamas has grown. In the past, he was considered a moderating influence who tried to lead Hamas towards reconciliation with the Fatah movement that governs the West Bank.
Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state on the pre-1948 borders of the British Mandate for Palestine.
In recent years, however, Hamas officials have hinted they may moderate their views in exchange for greater diplomatic influence and an end to the Israel-imposed blockade of the Gaza Strip.
McClatchy Newspapers, Bloomberg