Tight security for Meshaal's first visit to Gaza

AFP and AP, Friday 7 Dec 2012

Khaled Meshaal will pay his first-ever visit to Gaza marking Hamas' 25th anniversary amid Israeli threats to 'consider' the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire if the Islamist leader entered the strip

Palestinian members of the al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, ride in pickup trucks as they await the arrival of Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip December 7, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

Hamas exiled leader Khaled Meshaal was to make his first-ever visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday amid tight security for festivities marking the ruling Islamist movement's 25th anniversary.

He was expected to arrive in the Palestinian territory through the Rafah crossing with Egypt for a trip which comes two weeks after a major eight-day confrontation with Israel.

Ahead of his arrival, due to start after the weekly Friday prayers, security forces were out en masse to secure the top-level visit.

The landmark visit marks the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip, with Meshaal to be hosted throughout his four-day visit by Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya, an official said.

The two leaders are to hold a news conference in Rafah before travelling to Gaza City to visit the home of the late Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.

On the ground, hundreds of police, security personnel and Hamas militants from the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades were deployed along the main road running the length of the strip where Meshaal's convoy was to travel.

Meshaal, 56, went into exile with his family in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War and since then, has never returned to the Palestinian territories.

He had been due to visit Gaza at the start of the year, but the trip never happened.

Meshaal will meet members of different Palestinian factions as well as local people, and families who lost someone or were injured in last month's conflict with Israel, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zhuri said in a statement on Thursday.

The visit, he said, was the "fruit of the victory of the resistance over the occupation".

Meshaal's trip comes after a November 21 ceasefire ended eight days of bloodshed between Israel and Gaza militant groups.

The violence began on November 14 with Israel's targeted killing of top Hamas military commander Ahmed Jaabari, sparking a violent confrontation which left 174 Palestinians dead, more than 100 of them civilians, as well as six Israelis -- four civilians and two soldiers.

The chief of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah, had also been expected to attend the anniversary celebrations, but a sources in that militant movement said he would likely cancel the trip over Israeli objections.

"The Egyptians told Ramadan Shallah that they (Israeli leaders) would end the ceasefire if he came to Gaza," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity on Thursday.

"Islamic Jihad had contacts with the Egyptians on this question and Ramadan Shallah will most likely cancel the visit," he added.

Hamas marks its official anniversary on December 14, but celebrations are set to begin earlier with a major rally on Saturday, when Meshaal is expected to speak.

Founded in 1987 shortly after the beginning of the first intifada, or uprising, against the Israeli occupation, Hamas was inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

Its charter calls for the eventual destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state on the pre-1948 borders of the British Palestine Mandate.

In 2006, Hamas won a landslide victory in Palestinian elections, routing the long-dominant Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas, and a year later, expelled Fatah forces from Gaza after months of factional unrest.

 Meanwhile, members of Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad say Israel has warned the militant group's two top leaders against trying to enter the Gaza Strip this week.

Two Islamic Jihad members said Thursday that Egypt had relayed warnings that Israel would consider the Gaza truce over if the group's leaders enter Gaza. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the issue with the media.

Israel's Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.

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