BEIT LAHIYA // Before embracing officials after arriving yesterday for his first visit to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, the group's leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, fell to his knees and kissed the ground.
"I have been dreaming of this historic moment my entire life, to come to Gaza," said Mr Meshaal, 56, who crossed into Gaza in a seven-vehicle convoy from Egypt. "I ask God to give me martyrdom one day on this land."
Masked gunmen and Islamist figures from Hamas turned out en masse to greet Mr Meshaal, who has led the group from abroad since 1996, and lives in Qatar's capital, Doha.
Streets were festooned with Hamas's green flags and posters bearing martial slogans. Youth marching bands strode down Gaza City's streets. Militarism, not peacemaking, seemed the order of things.
The rare foray is another example of Hamas's emergence from years of political isolation, thanks primarily to the political rise of fellow Islamists in the region. Coming a day before celebrations here for Hamas's founding 25 years ago, Mr Meshaal's visit was also possible because of the group's eight-day war with Israel last month. The Islamist group has trumpeted the war and resulting ceasefire - brokered by Cairo with a nod from Washington - as a victory. During the fighting, it launched rockets as far as Tel Aviv, about 70 kilometres to the north, which the group proclaimed proudly during yesterday's festivities.
Part of the ceasefire agreement included Israel not assassinating Hamas leaders, which helped pave the way for Mr Meshaal's entry to Gaza.
"On the 25th anniversary of Hamas, we say, 'Oh, sleep well, Ahmed Yassin,' because you can rest soundly knowing that the resistance is in the streets and hitting Tel Aviv," said one chant blared from a Hamas vehicle yesterday. That was in reference to Sheikh Yassin, a founder of Hamas assassinated by an Israeli helicopter gunship in 2004.
Mr Meshaal visited the late leader's home yesterday under the watchful eye of dozens of fatigue-clad fighters toting rocket-propelled grenades. But enthusiasm for his visit here could hardly be described as pervasive.
"There's no reason to celebrate in Gaza," said Abdelkareem Abu Helou, 28, a resident of Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza. During the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that began in 2000, Israeli air strikes and tanks decimated his family's orange and olive groves.
"We've suffered to much to be happy. What we need is peace."
Before the dismantling of Hamas's headquarters in Damascus last year, Mr Meshaal, who was born in the West Bank village of Silwad, oversaw its militant activities from the Syrian capital at a time of upheaval and pain for Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied territories.
Hamas's suicide and rocket attacks on Israeli civilians before, during and after last decade's second intifada triggered violent Israeli reprisals against Gazans.
Thousands of Palestinians were killed during that fighting. Many of them were Gazans who had to face down armed Israeli bulldozers, tanks and warplanes. The fighting also encouraged Israel to impose its blockade on the territory, stripping many of its 1.6 million residents of work opportunities and hope.
Mr Meshaal survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997. But he observed most of the Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting from the relatively safe confines abroad, noted Omar Khalil Omar, 77, also a resident of Beit Lahia.
"He hasn't suffered like the people of Gaza have suffered, like I have suffered," he said.
During tit-for-tat battles in 2004 between Israel and Palestinian fighters during, Israeli tanks and bulldozers demolished parts of Mr Omar's family home. They crushed the headstone to his mother's grave during the process. And then on the same day, he said, an Israeli missile killed his five-year-old grandson, Wadeia.
"Meshaal wasn't here for any of that," said Mr Omar, who did not attend the welcoming ceremonies. "We have nothing to celebrate about today. We've had all of these wars, but we've never achieved peace, a decent life."
Ibrahim Ibrach, political science professor at Gaza's Al Azhar University, described Mr Meshaal's visit as a show of force by Hamas's outside leadership against the relatively more hardline figures based in Gaza. The latter have chafed against Mr Meshaal's relatively pragmatic policies that include suggesting a tacit recognition of Israel and attempting to reconcile with the rival Fatah faction that runs the West Bank's Palestinian Authority.
Hamas took control of Gaza from Fatah forces in 2007.
"Meshaal is backed by the moderate voices of the Muslim Brotherhood, which are trying to make good relations with Washington and, indirectly, with Israel," Mr Ibrach said. "They support him over the hardliners."
He and other analysts said Mr Meshaal's main backers - Egypt, Turkey and Qatar - hope he would stay on as head of Hamas, which is holding internal leadership elections.
Mr Meshaal has indicated he would step down.