RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The image of Hamas' long-exiled chief triumphantly walking around the Gaza Strip, flashing victory signs beside Islamic militant leaders Friday, illustrates how the group's defiance of Israel is forcing a change in Palestinian politics.
Buoyed by the rise of fellow Islamists in Egypt, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and his allies are confronting Israel with the specter of a change in the balance of power between the two rival Palestinian factions — Hamas and the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah.
Mashaal, 56, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads Hamas from the Gulf state of Qatar, broke into tears Friday as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first-ever visit.
Once on Gazan soil after crossing the border from Egypt, he prostrated himself in a gesture of thanks, He then recited a traditional Islamic prayer and kissed the ground.
Thousands of supporters lined the streets as Mashaal and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by, waving and flashing victory signs.
Mashaal's visit would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. He would have been an easy target for Israel. Fifteen years ago, Mashaal was nearly assassinated in Jordan by Israeli agents who squirted a deadly poison in his ear, narrowly escaping after the U.S. forced Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as Israel's prime minister, to provide the antidote.
On Friday, Mashaal referred to the assassination attempt by the foolish Netanyahu, saying, God was stronger than him and his conspiracy.
But a Nov. 21 cease-fire agreement, negotiated by Egypt, has forced Israel to leave Hamas leaders alone and negotiate, albeit indirectly, with the Islamic militant group sworn to its destruction.
It appears unlikely that Hamas would ever agree to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The U.S. and European Union have joined Israel in listing Hamas as a terror organization because of its history of attacks aimed at civilians, including suicide bombings inside buses, restaurants and other public places.
But with Israel's relations at an all-time low with Abbas, the Jewish state might be faced with a tough choice.
Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, frozen since 2008, seem to have collapsed altogether. Mashaal's visit came just two weeks ago after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza violence in four years.