A visit from the boss in Gaza

Khaled Meshal made his first visit to the Gaza Strip today as the head of Hamas:

For Mr. Meshal, 56, it was a triumphant visit, and Hamas fighters, armed with rifles and wearing balaclavas, lined the streets where he was to travel. He entered from Egypt, through the Rafah crossing, an indication of a new alliance with Cairo.

“Gaza, with its martyrs, cannot be described in words,” he said as he arrived here, with tears in his eyes. “There are no words to describe Gaza, to describe the heroes, the martyrs, the blood, the mothers who lost their sons.

“I say I return to Gaza even if I never have been here. It has always been in my heart.”

Mr. Meshal’s visit resonated on multiple levels, reflecting the many changes that have swept the region since the Arab Spring. Mr. Meshal was permitted to cross the Egyptian border now that allies of the Muslim Brotherhood — a cousin of Hamas — have come to power. But it also reflected at least a symbolic effort to heal divisions within Hamas between Mr. Meshal and the leadership in Gaza, and for Hamas to promote its contention that it was victorious in its recent battle with Israel. Mr. Meshal fled the West Bank with his family after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and had never returned to Palestinian territory. In 1997, when he was in Amman, Jordan, agents from the Israeli intelligence service, posing as Canadian tourists, tried to kill him by injecting him with poison. The agents were captured by Jordanian authorities, and Mr. Meshal lay in a coma until the agents handed over the antidote.

Color me ignorant, but it seems bizarre to me that Meshal can navigate around Gaza so freely and openly just weeks after the conclusion of fighting precipitated by an unexpected Israeli air strike on a senior Hamas operative, Ahmed Jabari. The fact that Jabari was apparently a somewhat key contact of Israel’s makes Meshal’s very public visit all the more striking.

Israel has, quite obviously, not always been above attempted assassinations of Meshal (as evidenced by its failed 1997 attempt), so it’s interesting to guess exactly what’s preventing it from taking the easy shot now. Obviously, there would be international repercussions of some sort. But given the recent overwhelming vote (over Israel’s strong objections) to award Palestine nonmember observer state status at the United Nations, it’s not particularly clear that Israel cares much about its increasing isolation anyway.

So what is preventing Israel from assassinating Meshal? If the entire reason for its restraint is the recent truce negotiated by Egypt, then perhaps there really is some baseline level of trust between senior Israeli and Hamas officials. After all, it seems unlikely Meshal would risk appearing in public in Gaza if he didn’t have utter certainty that he wouldn’t be targeted.

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