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Long-exiled Hamas chief triumphantly returns to Gaza

Exiled Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal upon his arrival at Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza Strip, Friday, Dec. 7, 2012. The exiled Hamas chief broke into tears Friday as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first-ever visit, a landmark trip reflecting his militant group's growing international acceptance and its defiance of Israel. Khaled Mashaal, who left the West Bank as a child and leads the Islamic militant movement from Qatar, crossed the Egyptian border, kissed the ground, and was greeted by a crowd of Hamas officials and representatives of Hamas' rival Fatah party. He was also welcomed by a group of Palestinian orphans — children of Gaza militants killed by Israel in recent years — wearing military-style uniforms. (AP Photo/Suhaib Salem , Pool)

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By The Associated Press
Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 7:02 p.m.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — The image of Hamas' long-exiled chief triumphantly walking around the Gaza Strip, flashing victory signs beside Islamic militant leaders on 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 leads Hamas from Qatar, broke into tears as he arrived in the Gaza Strip for his first-ever visit.

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 even 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 United States forced Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as Israel's prime minister, to provide the antidote.

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 for peace talks with Israel. America and the EU have joined Israel in listing Hamas as a terror organization.

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