7 Dec 2012

Gaza visit underscores Muslim Brotherhood’s strength

Today’s visit to Gaza by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, after 45 years of exile from Palestinian land, reinforces the growing confidence of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East.

Mr Meshaal passed through the Egyptian border crossing, knelt on the ground to pray and was greeted by dozens of officials from competing Palestinian factions.

He was to spend 48 hours in the coastal enclave and attend a mass rally on Saturday billed as a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and a “victory” celebration following the November fighting.

The visit comes two weeks after a bloody round of Israel-Gaza fighting which left hundreds dead. Hamas has portrayed itself as the victor because Israel agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce after eight days.

Khaled Mashaal has positioned himself as a pragmatist who enjoys the backing of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar. In honour of his visit, a large stage has been set up in Gaza City, with a huge model of the homemade M75 rocket fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last month. The rally is being held on the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel.

The journey home

The 56-year-old left the nearby West Bank in 1967 and had never set foot in the largely isolated Gaza, governed by Hamas since a 2007 civil war against Fatah rivals.

During the trip, he was to visit the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, assassinated by Israel in 2004, and that of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, the group’s military commander killed in the Israeli strikes last month.

There was an attempt on Mr Meshaal’s life in 1997 in Jordan. Although there was no indication he might be targeted again, Hamas laid on massive security for his arrival.

Mr Meshaal ran Hamas from exile in Damascus from 2004 until January, when he left the Syrian capital in the midst of a war between rebels and President Bashar al-Assad’s troops and now divides his time between Qatar and Cairo.

His departure from Syria initially weakened his position within Hamas as his ties with Damascus and Tehran had made him important.

Re-election bid?

Arab Spring revolts have brought friends of Hamas to power across the Arab world – above all, Egypt’s new President Mohammed Mursi, whose long-banned Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organisation of Hamas.

Mr Mashaal, who has headed Hamas’s decision-making political bureau since 1996, has said he is not seeking re-election, but some have suggested his Gaza visit could signal a change of heart.

“Egypt, Qatar and Turkey want Khaled Mashaal, simply because he is a moderate and can get things done between the west and the Islamists,” said Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri.

Hamas leaders have said in recent years the movement could live peacefully alongside Israel if it wins a state on all Palestinian land occupied by Israel in 1967, although the Islamist group’s 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and for recovering all of British mandate Palestine.

Israel remains aloof

Israel, meanwhile, appears to be looking the other way. It considers Hamas a terror organisation and refuses to deal with it directly.

Since its Gaza offensive last month, however, Israel has conducted indirect talks with Hamas, through Egypt, on a truce and a further easing of the Gaza border restrictions.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said on Thursday Israel has no say over who enters Gaza from Egypt.

“We have no position on different individuals within Hamas,” he said when asked about the Mashaal trip. “Hamas is Hamas is Hamas.”

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have received money and weapons from Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy. During last month’s cross-border fighting, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, including Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets that landed close to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel’s heartland.