GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Hamas chief Khalid Mashaal made his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Friday, telling crowds he hoped his next visit would be to Jerusalem, Ramallah and a liberated Palestine.
After passing through the Egyptian border crossing, Mashaal knelt on the ground to offer a prayer of thanks and was then greeted by dozens of officials from an array of competing factions lined up to meet him in warm December sun.
Mashaal praised the people of Gaza and the political factions in his first ever speech on Palestinian soil. "We politicians are in debt to the people of Gaza," he said.
The leader was briefly tearful as he was welcomed by Gaza's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Mashaal said his visit to Gaza was his "third birth" referring to an assassination attempt by Israeli Mossad agents in 1997 as his previous "re-birth."
"I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine," he said, clearly moved by his reception, with uniformed police breaking ranks to try and kiss his hand.
"Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa," he said.
Haniyeh welcomed Mashaal's arrival as a historic moment in Palestinian history.
Hamas denied seeking guarantees via Egyptian contacts with Israel that Mashaal would not be targeted for assassination in Gaza. There was massive security for his arrival, with gun-toting, black-masked guards from the Hamas military wing patrolling the streets in open-topped trucks and motorbikes.
"This is the most beautiful day in my life," said 27-year-old policeman, Mohammed Abed. "I kissed him on the head."
Mashaal, 56, had been widely understood not to have set foot in Palestine since he left his native West Bank with his family aged 11. However in his speech he indicated he had returned for a visit as a teenager in 1975.
The Hamas chief visited the home of the late founder and spiritual leader of the party, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.
"Sheikh Ahmad Yassin linked reconciliation and resistance. As Hamas leaders, and From Ahmad Yassin's house, we promise to implement national reconciliation and end the division," he said.
Mashaal visited the homes of Hamas military commander Ahmad al-Jaabari and his bodyguard Mohammad al-Hams, who Israel assassinated on Nov. 14 at the start of its eight day war on Gaza.
He also visited the al-Dalou family home. Israel killed 10 members of the family, including four children and five women, as well as two of their neighbors, in an airstrike on Nov. 18.
"All Palestinians will eventually return to their homeland. Khaled Mashaal is returning after a victory," said veteran Hamas strategist Mahmoud al-Zahar.
Mashaal will stay for a little more than 48 hours in the coastal enclave, which Hamas has ruled since a 2007 war with Fatah that rules the West Bank. Hamas politburo members Mousa Abu Marzouq, Izzat al-Rishq, and Saleh al-Arouri accompanied him.
Hamas plans an open-air rally on Saturday to promote what it says was last month's victory against Israel, and at the same time commemorate the 25th anniversary of the group's founding.
Saturday's rally is not being held on the exact date of Hamas's founding, but on the 25th anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel.
That is being seen as an overture to other factions and a hint of a new willingness to seek reconciliation with Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas, who last week won de-facto statehood recognition from the UN General Assembly.
"This is a promise from the leadership of Hamas. We will press ahead with reconciliation to end divisions and to stand united against the Zionist occupation," Mashaal said on Friday.
Gaza City has been festooned with green Hamas flags and a stage set up, complete with a huge model of the makeshift M75 rocket, fired at both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last month.
Israeli media have barely mentioned Mashaal's return. Israeli officials say the week of round-the-clock bombing raids in November had not only killed al-Jaabari, but also severely depleted Hamas's weapons stockpile.
"They can dance in the streets as much as they like, but their leaders know what damage was inflicted," said a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem, who declined to be named.
However, the conflict clearly boosted Hamas's political standing in the region, winning it the support of Sunni regional powers, such as Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, who dispatched senior delegations to Gaza in a rare and public display of solidarity.Reuters contributed to this report