Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, left, rides in a car with Hamas Prime Minister… (Ali Ali / European Pressphoto…)
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal 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 Meshaal has led the Islamist militant group since 2004, traveling to its Gaza-based home was unthinkable just a month ago because of fear 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 Meshaal to make a victory lap through the seaside territory, culminating Saturday with an outdoor 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, fighting back tears.
The visit underscores Hamas' rising political clout in a Middle East reshaped by the "Arab Spring." But it also has many wondering how the militant group will use its newfound prominence, and what role Meshaal will play.
Meshaal, 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 coming months, after secret Hamas elections to select a new leader.
Meshaal leads a more moderate, pragmatic Hamas faction against a rival group of Gaza-based hard-liners. He has said he no longer wants the job.
Yet on the heels of the recent clash with Israel, some predict that Meshaal, 56, will want to remain at the helm at such a crucial time.
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," Meshaal 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 hosts 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.
Meshaal, who recently left the chaos in Syria for 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 during his visit 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.
Meshaal is facing a challenge from hard-liners, such as Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and senior official Mahmoud Zahar, who are skeptical of reconciliation with Fatah and say armed resistance is the only path to ending the Israeli occupation. Over the last year, Zahar and Meshaal have clashed openly about the future direction of Hamas.
"We should not be speaking about just one person," Zahar said Friday when asked about Meshaal's future during the welcoming ceremony. "This is a symbolic victory for all Hamas leaders and Islamic Jihad leaders. It shows Israel that we control our land."
Though some Western diplomats hope Meshaal will moderate the group's behavior, Israelis dismiss Hamas' internal power struggles as irrelevant. They note that the group, which Israel and the U.S. label a terrorist organization, refuses to renounce violence, recognize Israel or accept past peace accords.
"Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," said Yigal Palmor, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Others say the outcome of the Hamas election, which has been underway for months, will be key. For one thing, Palestinian reconciliation may hinge on it.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, head of Fatah, said Wednesday that reconciliation talks in Egypt were likely to be suspended until Hamas chooses its new leader.
In Gaza, Meshaal gets mixed reviews. As a former Muslim Brotherhood member, he is seen as a strong envoy to Egypt's new government. He also has held the purse strings for funds from Iran and, more recently, Qatar.
On Friday, he was greeted like a king. Flag-draped streets were lined by masked, armed Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade fighters. A giant plastic rocket, labeled "Made in Gaza," was set up on the stage where Meshaal will be greeted at Saturday's celebration.
During a visit to the grieving family of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, assassinated by Israel last month during the conflict, Meshaal was nearly knocked to the ground by a throng of people trying to shake his hand.
Yet his popularity in Gaza has never been as strong as it is among Hamas members in the West Bank and diaspora. Though he is admired by Palestinians for narrowly escaping assassination in 1997, when Israel tried to poison him in Jordan, Meshaal is seen by some here as an outsider because of his long periods in exile.
Polls show that Haniyeh, who has been angling for nearly a year to replace Meshaal as head of the political bureau, is more popular among Gazans.
"People in Gaza like Haniyeh," said Rafat Battah, a border guard who watched the welcoming ceremony with three small children dressed in camouflage and carrying plastic guns. "He spends a lot of time with the people. We can trust him."