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Hamas Prepares For Major Event In Gaza Strip

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is expected to visit the territory, crossing over from the Egyptian border. His visit comes amid speculation that Hamas, which rules Gaza, will seal a reconciliation deal with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In the West Bank and Gaza, there has been a bitter rivalry between the two fractious Palestinian factions. Hamas controls Gaza, and Fatah is the dominant faction behind the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Now officials say the leader of Hamas will make his first-ever visit to Gaza tomorrow, after 45 years of exile. His arrival will come some two weeks after Israel and Gaza stopped firing missiles and rockets at each other, and many in the region are watching this closely for any signs of Palestinian unity. To find out more, we're joined by NPR's Philip Reeves in Gaza.

Phil, good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So tell us about this leader of Hamas: Who is he, and how sure are we that he's actually going to show up?

REEVES: A spokesman for Hamas confirmed to NPR this morning that Khaled Meshaal is definitely coming tomorrow. Nothing is ever certain in the Middle East, but they are expecting him here. Gaza's festooned with the green flags of Hamas. They're building a stage and hanging up loudspeakers in a big public green in the middle of town. That's for a massive rally on Saturday. The centerpiece of that stage, by the way, is a huge, fat, green plastic rocket pointing some 50 feet into the sky. It has the words Made in Gaza written on it.

GREENE: And, Philip, that sounds like quite a scene you're seeing. I mean, what is the purpose of this visit, and what about the timing? Why now?

REEVES: Well, that rocket gives you one clue. Meshaal has come to congratulate Gazans for what Hamas is portraying as a victory against Israel in the last bout of hostilities. Eight days of Israeli missile strikes killed more than 160 Palestinians here. They injured and traumatized many, many more. They destroyed Hamas offices, weapons dumps, infrastructure, yet Hamas is casting this as a victory.

Why? Because they believe that by firing rockets at Israel - especially at big cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv - they stood up to the Israelis and forced Israel to accept a ceasefire. That plastic rocket is a symbol of that. And the other official reason is to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hamas' creation. Previous Hamas anniversary rallies have drawn hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets, and the same is likely this time around.

GREENE: Okay. So how is Israel likely to react to what looks like a celebratory visit?

REEVES: Well, some Israelis - especially those in the south, who were under regular rocket fire from Gaza before the ceasefire, they felt that the Israeli military did not finish the job, and the offensive should have continued. The sight of Hamas leaders parading around holding such triumphalist mass celebrations will, I suspect, strengthen that view.

On the other hand, images of these celebrations beamed out of Gaza around the world may further reinforce the view which, of course, is held by Israel that Hamas is an extremist organization.

GREENE: I mean, haven't Hamas leaders been targeted in the past by Israel? Is this a risk for Meshaal at all?

REEVES: Well, there is a ceasefire in force, and the Palestinians have complained of violations. But Israel is broadly observing it, and so is Hamas. Yet, you know, Meshaal will be thinking about the history of this place and the history of his organization.

There's talk of him visiting the home of Sheikh Yassin, the founder of Hamas. He's also expected, perhaps, to visit the home of Ahmed al-Jabari. He's the military commander of Hamas who was assassinated last month by Israel. And in 1997, when Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu was also in power in Israel, Israel attempted to kill Meshaal in Jordan. These are facts that are sure to be preying on Meshaal's mind as he comes here.

GREENE: Okay, Phil, so we saw some signs of Palestinian unity during the recent conflict. I mean, is - this visit seem like a further step in that direction?

REEVES: Well, both sides say they want it. There's a lot of talk among Palestinians on the street about unifying. Hamas believes it's in a strong position right now. It's heartened by international recognition it's received, visits to Gaza by Arab and Turkish leaders and European delegations. But words are one thing, David. Getting Hamas and Fatah to reconcile in practice is another.

There are big questions here, not least who has the upper hand, and how would reconciliation impact the Palestinian Authority's international standing, remembering that the U.S. and the Europeans - and, of course, Israel - officially view Hamas as a terrorist organization that refuses to recognize Israel.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Philip Reeves, reporting on the visit of Hamas' leader to Gaza. Phil, thanks so much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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