NEW: Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal receives a hero's welcome in Gaza
NEW: "We owe the heroes and martyrs," Meshaal says
He is in Gaza to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas
The visit comes two weeks after the end of a bloody conflict with Israel
Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal arrived in Gaza Friday to a hero’s welcome, two weeks after a bloody fight with Israel that left the group energized and emboldened.
He dropped down and kissed the ground after crossing into Gaza from Egypt at the Rafah border crossing.
“We politicians, we owe the people of Gaza, and the entire factions of the resistance, we owe the heroes and martyrs,” Meshaal said. “if it wasn’t for you we would have not visited Gaza.”
A jubilant crowd lined the road leading from the border crossing into Gaza City. Among the throng were hundreds of jubilant Hamas fighters, wearing fatigues and balaclavas, hoisting AK-47s and RPG launchers, and cheering Meshaal’s first visit to the Palestinian territory.
The first appointments on his schedule included visits to the homes of former Hamas leaders and Gaza residents killed in recent years by Israeli’s strikes.
Among the stops were the home of the Hamas military leader whose targeted killing by Israel in November opened the recent eight-day conflict, as well as the home where 10 members of one family died in an Israeli airstrike. Saturday, he will participate in a rally celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas.
Meshaal, who has led Hamas from exile since 2004, is making his first visit to Gaza and his first to the Palestinian territories in 45 years. He left the Palestinian West Bank in 1967 at the age of 11 after Israel moved into the territory during the Six-Day War. Israel, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, attempted to assassinate him in 1997.
“I say this my third birth,” Meshaal told supporters, saying the first was his natural birth in 1956, while the second followed the attempted assassination.
“And this moment today, December 7, 2012, this I consider it to be my third birth, Meshaal said. “And I ask God for our fourth birth with the entire liberation of Palestine.”
The goal of Hamas is an Islamic fundamentalist Palestinian state. Its manifesto advocates the destruction of the state of Israel, and calls for the raising of “the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.”
Hamas members, like most Palestinian factions and political parties, insist that Israel is an occupying power, and that the group is simply trying to liberate the Palestinian territories.
Israel, the United States and other Western countries label Hamas a terrorist organization. The United States has also listed Meshaal as a terrorist since 2003.
Meshaal has previously said the group would support a Palestinian state based on the borders that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, during which Israeli troops occupied Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. The state would have East Jerusalem as its capital, he said.
However, he has stopped short of backing a full two-state solution, including acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
He has long advocated a role for the threat of violence in forcing peace with Israel.
“You are successful in negotiation and in imposing your conditions on the enemy depending on the number of power cards you have on the ground,” the Congressional Research Service quoted Meshaal as saying, citing a Jordanian newspaper.
That perspective will be in full view in Saturday’s rally.
Meshaal will speak to the assembled throng from a platform beneath a replica of the Qassam rockets fired at Israel during the recent conflict, in which 160 Palestinians and six Israelis died.
The inscription on the rocket? “Made in Gaza.”
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen, Kareem Khadder and Michael Pearson contributed to this report.