Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal made his first visit to Gaza on Friday, kissing the ground and saying he hoped he would one day die a "martyr" in the Palestinian territory.
After his seven-vehicle convoy swept across the border from Egypt, Meshaal got out and kissed Palestinian soil before embracing Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya.
Green Hamas flags and the red, white, green and black of the Palestinian flag were everywhere to mark the unprecented visit, which was timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement.
Meshaal was accompanied by his deputy Mussa Abu Marzuk and other top officials on the trip which came just two weeks after the end of a deadly confrontation with Israel that began on November 14 with an Israeli air strike that killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Jaabari.
Shortly after his arrival, Meshaal was taken to see the charred remains of Jaabari's car, which had been transported to Rafah on the Egyptian border especially for the visit.
"I hope God will make me a martyr on the land of Palestine in Gaza," he said.
Security was tight across the territory with masked militants from Hamas military wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades out in force, wearing fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles, as they patrolled the roads along which Meshaal's convoy was to travel.
"This is the first time that I am coming to Palestine in 37 years," said Meshaal who is originally from a village in the West Bank but went into exile with his family after the 1967 Middle East war, only returning for a brief visit in 1975.
It was his first-ever visit to Gaza.
"This is my third birth," he told reporters at a brief press conference, saying his second was after he escaped an Israeli attempt to kill him in Jordan in 1997.
Shortly afterwards, the convoy set off for Gaza City, travelling along streets decked with Hamas flags and the red flags of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which on December 11 marks its 45th anniversary.
Meshaal's delegation paid a brief visit to a home destroyed by a recent Israeli airstrike in the Zeitun neighbourhood before heading westward to the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.
Speaking at Yassin's house, Meshaal promised to "walk down the route of reconciliation, bury the division (with Fatah) and empower unity in order to be aligned as one in face the Zionist entity."
Meshaal said Yassin "was all his life an advocate of reconciliation and national unity, as well as resistance."
Hamas marks its official anniversary on December 14, but celebrations are to begin on Saturday with a major rally at which Meshaal is expected to speak.
During his four-day visit, Meshaal will meet members of different Palestinian factions as well as the bereaved and the wounded from last month's conflict, Hamas officials said.
His trip comes just two weeks after an Egyptian-brokered truce ended eight days of bloodshed which left 174 Palestinians dead, more than 100 of them civilians, as well as six Israelis -- four civilians and two soldiers.
Islamic Jihad's leader Ramadan Shallah had also been expected to attend the celebrations, but was expected to cancel the visit after Israel objected.
"The Egyptians told Ramadan Shallah that they (Israel) would end the ceasefire if he came to Gaza," a Jihad source told AFP on Thursday, saying Shallah would "most likely cancel the visit".
Israel said the visit proved there was no blockade on Gaza.
"This visit by Meshaal, which follows that of the Qatari emir and the Egyptian prime minister and other officials proves there is no Israeli blockade on Gaza," said foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, referring to a measure put in place by Israel in 2006, but eased in recent years.
Founded in 1987 shortly after the start of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, 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 general election victory, routing the long-dominant Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas. Some 18 months later, Hamas ousted Fatah forces from Gaza after several weeks of running street battles.