JERUSALEM — When Khaled Meshaal crosses into the Gaza Strip at noon on Friday it will be the Hamas leader’s first trip to the coastal territory. It also will be a symbol of how far the Palestinian Islamist movement, which both Israel and the United States have branded a terrorist organization, has come since its inception in 1987.
Meshaal, often called “the exiled Hamas leader,” assumed control of the group in 2004, after its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated by Israel. He has traveled widely to help Hamas garner support across the Arab world and recently has helped secure the diplomatic support of key Arab states in the region.
But no visit will be as significant as Meshaal’s trip to Gaza this weekend. Regional analysts call it a “watershed moment.”
“Hamas feels the wind of change beneath their wings,” said Jonathan Spyer, a senior researcher at the prestigious Interdisciplinary Center, a private university in the Israeli coastal city of Herzylia. “Khaled Meshaal’s visit to Gaza is significant… it means that Meshaal is back in the game.”
In the past year, Meshaal has twice announced his retirement from political life, leading many to speculate that a rift had grown between the local Hamas leadership in Gaza and their exiled leadership abroad. Meshaal’s visit to Gaza indicates, however, that the movement is indeed united, Spyer said.
“It’s not hard to see why. If you look at the process of what used to be called the Arab Spring, you can see what is really a movement of old, decrepit nationalist movements being replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Spyer said.
Hamas, which sees itself as the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, saw its influence grow when Mohammed Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood official, won Egypt’s presidency in June.
Part of a ceasefire deal negotiated by Egypt last month called for a truce in fighting between Israel and Hamas as well as an end to targeted assassinations. It was fear that Israel would target Meshaal as it had Yassin that had kept Meshaal from visiting Gaza. With the cease-fire in effect, that impediment was gone.
Hamas "announces the visit of Khaled Meshaal, head of the political bureau, tomorrow, December 7, to participate in the celebration of the movement’s 25th anniversary," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri announced in a statement Thursday.
The visit, Abu Zuhri added, was "a fruit of the victory of the resistance over the occupation."
Meshaal’s visit will include a tour of Gaza, as well as meetings with the families of those killed and injured during the recent round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, which began Nov. 14 with Israel’s targeted killing of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jaabari.
Meshaal, who was born in the West Bank village of Silwad in 1956, moved to Kuwait after the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel captured the West Bank, Gaza and the Egyptian Sinai. He later moved to Jordan, where his association with Hamas began.
His role in the organization has shifted over the years. At times he was considered to be at the head of the decision-making process for Hamas, while at other times he appeared to have been sidelined by the Gaza-based Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh.
Israel will be watching the visit closely to try to determine whether Meshaal’s influence in Hamas has grown. In the past, he was considered a moderating influence who tried to lead Hamas toward reconciliation with the Western-backed Fatah movement that governs the West Bank.
Hamas’ 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 recent years, however, Hamas officials have hinted that they could moderate their views in exchange for greater diplomatic influence and an end to the Israel-imposed blockade of the Gaza Strip.
European officials already have suggested that Western governments should begin a dialogue with Hamas. Last month, U.N. Mideast envoy Robert Serry told McClatchy that his office has had “quiet engagements” with Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip that included discussion of political and diplomatic issues. It was the first time the U.N. has admitted to contacts with Hamas beyond the day-to-day management of U.N. operations in Gaza.
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent; Twitter: @sheeraf