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Hamas Leader Visits Gaza Strip For The First Time

Khaled Mashaal, the long-exiled leader of Hamas, made his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We go overseas now to the Gaza Strip, where the leader of Hamas visited today for the first time. Palestinians are still cleaning up after last month's ferocious week-long fight with Israel. Khaled Mashaal's visit to the Hamas-ruled strip is being seen as both symbolic and politically significant. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Gaza and reports the Hamas leader got a hero's welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The morning begins with the blare of loudspeakers. They urge the people of this crowded coastal strip to come out after Friday prayers and welcome Mashaal.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Men from Hamas' military wing, the al-Qassam brigades, appear. Soon, there are hundreds of black and khaki brandishing Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. Their faces concealed by black masks, they go through their paces for the cameras. Mashaal enters from Egypt at a crossing at Rafah on Gaza's southern tip. He kneels and kisses the ground. He walks out of the arrival terminal into bright sunlight, steps up to the microphones.

KHALED MASHAAL: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: And makes a speech.

MASHAAL: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Mashaal says he feels as if he's been reborn. He says he's had that feeling before.

MASHAAL: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The last time was in 1997, he says, when he survived an Israeli assassination attempt.

MASHAAL: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Surrounded by a phalanx of security men, Mashaal and the senior Hamas officials who've turned out to greet him, drive off into Gaza. He stands and waves through the sunroof. The streets are lined with militiamen from the al-Qassam brigades posted a few dozen yards apart in an unusually large display of force. Officially, Mashaal has come to mark the 25th anniversary of Hamas. Bigger themes are in play, though. Analysts say this is an attempt by Hamas to signal it's on the rise as a regional force. Mashaal has arrived during the surge of enthusiasm among Palestinians for unity. For five years, there's been a deep rift between Hamas that rules Gaza and Fatah, the main faction behind the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Last year, they drew up a reconciliation agreement but failed to implement it. Now, says Taher el-Nono, spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, both sides are ready.

TAHER EL-NONO: Yes, we are very serious to implement reconciliation.

REEVES: Crowds of Gazans wave enthusiastically at Mashaal's convoy as it sweeps past. This visit may be one of Mashaal's last duties. Hamas' top people are in the process of electing a new political leader. There's widespread speculation he'll leave. Mashaal's come to see the damage inflicted by a wave of intense Israeli missile strikes last month - an offensive Israel says was to stop Gazans firing rockets at its towns and cities. Mashaal portrays those eight days of hostilities as a victory for Gaza. That view is common here. It's even held by this man, Ahmed al-Dalo, an engineer who lost 10 members of his family when their house was destroyed by a missile strike that Israel admitted was a mistake. He's paralyzed by grief.

AHMED AL-DALO: I'm still saying why these children, why my mother, why my family, why my brother, why my sisters?

REEVES: Mashaal arrives to pay his respects to the grieving Dalo family at the ruins of their house. The crowd and the media cause mayhem. Tomorrow, there'll be more. Very large numbers are expected to turn out to see Mashaal address a Hamas rally. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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