HAMAS political chief Khaled Meshaal scorched Israeli and foreign ears during his landmark visit to the Gaza Strip by vowing to liberate every inch of historic Palestine.
But within Palestinian politics, the trip had an entirely different significance: advancing his ambitions to be the leader of all Palestinians.
Officially, the visit was to enable the Qatar-based leader, who left the West Bank as a child in 1967, to join celebrations of Hamas’s “victory” over Israel in last month’s war and mark the 25th anniversary of Hamas’ establishment.
But for Meshaal – who had returned to Palestinian territory only once before – it was a chance to build on the enhanced standing he gained as a result of the war, during which he presided over direct ceasefire negotiations involving Egypt, Turkey and Qatar and indirectly the US and Israel.
Touring Gaza to a hero’s welcome over the weekend, Meshaal effectively turned the international boost for Hamas into political capital for himself.
Talal Awkal, a columnist in Gaza City for the Ramallah-based al-Ayyam newspaper, said: “Meshaal wants to become the leader of the Palestinian people in general and for Hamas to be the major party leading Palestinian decision-making.
“Through this visit, he showed he is leader of Hamas and gained wide popularity inside Hamas and the society as a whole.”
Meshaal, whose standing within Hamas was in decline before the war, is bent on taking over from within the Palestinian institutions currently run by Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement.
Thus, during his speech to tens of thousands of Hamas loyalists on Saturday Meshaal stressed the need for the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to be the highest Palestinian decision-making authority, once Hamas is represented in the body, from which it is presently excluded.
Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister, commented: “He was appealing to Palestinians at large, not on a factional basis, and he was calling for national unity by saying the PLO is the house of all Palestinians.”
Hamas, which won a stunning victory in legislative elections in 2006, staged an armed takeover of Gaza from Fatah a year later. Meshaal and Abbas reached an agreement last year to heal the rift, but elements on both sides blocked its implementation in what was seen as proof that Meshaal lacked the clout to overcome Hamas hardliners in Gaza.
Reports before the war suggested Meshaal was stepping aside from his post as head of Hamas’s political bureau to make room for Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, or Musa Abu Marzouk, Meshaal’s Cairo-based deputy. But during Meshaal’s Gaza visit, Salah al-Aruri, a political bureau member, said it was now expected Meshaal would remain.
As part of his efforts to appear statesmanlike rather than factional, Meshaal took pains during his Gaza visit to strike a conciliatory tone towards Fatah, saying that each faction had made mistakes and the time had come to reconcile.
But on Israel there is no room for compromise. Indeed, Meshaal’s move to become a national leader has been launched amid promotion of “armed resistance” over Abbas’s espousal of negotiations and “peaceful resistance”.
In the Gaza visit, Meshaal put behind him statements earlier this year that he would accept as a temporary solution a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip alone. He told the rally: “Palestine from the river to the sea, north to south is our land. Not an inch can be conceded. The liberation of Palestine, all of Palestine is a duty, a right and a goal. Holy war and armed resistance are the real and right path to liberation and recovery of rights.”
Talal Awkal attributed Meshaal’s stance to the charged atmosphere after the war.
The columnist said: “He came to Gaza where Palestinians are celebrating the victory. The atmosphere cannot accept moderate ideas that we are committed to the territories occupied in 1967 only.”
But Shlomi Eldar, an Israeli specialist on Hamas, said Meshaal’s statements reflect his mending fences with the hardline Gaza leadership. He said: “These are statements that you can’t just go back on.”
• Ben Lynfield reports from Jerusalem for The Scotsman.