The leader of Hamas has arrived in the besieged Gaza Strip, ending 37 years of exile from the Palestinian Territories.
Khaled Meshaal said on his first-ever visit to Gaza on Friday that he hoped to become a "a martyr" there.
"I hope God will make me a martyr on the land of Palestine in Gaza," Meshaal said shortly after crossing from Egypt into Gaza via the southern Rafah crossing.
After crossing the border, Meshaal knelt on the ground to offer a prayer of thanks and was then greeted by dozens of officials from an array of competing Palestinian factions lined up to meet him.
"This is the first time that I am coming to Palestine in 37 years," said Meshaal, who is originally from a village in the occupied West Bank but went into exile with his family after the 1967 Middle East war, only returning for a brief visit in 1975.
"This is my third birth," he told reporters at a brief news conference, saying his second was after he escaped an Israeli attempt to kill him in Jordan in 1997.
Izzat al-Rishq, another senior member of the group's exiled political bureau, said it was a moving experience to finally be in the Gaza Strip.
"This is the greatest feeling I've ever had. It is an unforgettable historic moment," he said. "Our wish to kiss the soil of Palestine has come true."
Later on Friday, Meshaal's delegation visited the home of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004, as well as that of Ahmad al-Jabari, the group's military commander, who was killed in a similar air strike last month.
At Yassin's home, Meshaal promised to "walk down the route of reconciliation, bury the division [with rival Palestinian faction Fatah] and empower unity in order to be aligned as one in face the Zionist entity," noting that Yassin was a long-life "advocate of reconciliation and national unity, as well as resistance".
The Hamas leader will spend barely 48 hours in the coastal enclave and attend a mass rally on Saturday that has been advertised as both a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and a "victory" celebration after its recent conflict with Israel.
|Crowds greeted Meshaal and Haniyeh as
they paraded through the streets [Reuters]
Meshaal appeared emboldened from the eight-day conflict, which ended in a truce he negotiated under Egypt's auspices.
He has since spoken of reaching out to other Palestinian factions.
"There is a new mood that allows us to achieve reconciliation," Meshaal said in an interview last Friday from Qatar, where he has set up home since leaving Syria earlier this year.
Al Jazeera's Nicole Johnston, reporting from Gaza City, said Meshaal's trip also afforded an opportunity for Hamas and Fatah to present a united front.
"On Saturday there will be a huge rally for Meshaal. Most of the people there will be supporters of Hamas, but Fatah has also been invited, and they have said that they will take part in greeting him and celebrating his first visit to Gaza," she said.
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.
The violence in Gaza began on November 14, with Israel's targeted killing of Jabari, and left 174 Palestinians dead, including more than 100 civilians, as well as six Israelis.
The chief of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Shallah, had also been expected to attend the anniversary celebrations, but a source in the Palestinian armed group in Gaza said on Thursday that he would likely be forced to cancel the trip over Israeli objections.
"The Egyptians told Ramadan Shallah that they [Israeli leaders] would end the ceasefire if he came to Gaza," the source said on condition of anonymity.
"Islamic Jihad had contacts with the Egyptians on this question and Ramadan Shallah will most likely cancel the visit that was planned for Gaza."
Hamas marks its official anniversary on December 14, but celebrations are set to begin earlier with a major rally on Saturday, when Meshaal is expected to speak.