Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal made his first visit to Gaza on Friday, kissing the ground and saying he hoped he would one day die a "martyr" in the Palestinian territory.
After his seven-vehicle convoy swept across the border from Egypt, Meshaal kissed Palestinian soil before embracing Gaza's Hamas premier Ismail Haniya.
Green Hamas flags and the red, white, green and black of the Palestinian flag flew everywhere to mark the unprecedented visit, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Islamist movement's founding.
Meshaal was accompanied by his deputy Mussa Abu Marzuk and other officials on a trip that came just two weeks after the end of a deadly confrontation with Israel that began on November 14 with an air strike that killed Hamas military commander Ahmed Jaabari.
Meshaal was taken to see the charred remains of Jaabari's car, which had been transported to Rafah on the Egyptian border especially for the visit.
"I hope God will make me a martyr on the land of Palestine in Gaza," he said.
Security was tight across the territory, with masked militants from Hamas military wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades out in force, wearing fatigues and carrying Kalashnikov assault rifles as they patrolled the roads along which Meshaal's convoy was to travel.
"This is the first time that I am coming to Palestine in 37 years," said Meshaal who is originally from a village in the West Bank but went into exile with his family after the 1967 Middle East war, only returning for a brief visit in 1975.
It was his first visit to Gaza.
"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.
The convoy then headed for Gaza City through streets decked with Hamas flags and the red flags of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which on December 11 marks its 45th anniversary.
Meshaal's delegation paid a brief visit to a home destroyed by an Israeli air strike in the Zeitun neighbourhood before heading to the house of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.
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There, Meshaal promised to "walk down the route of reconciliation, bury the division (with 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."
Meshaal's delegation also went to the ruins of the Dallu home, where a deadly Israeli strike on November 18 killed 12 people, including six women and four children.
"Israel has managed to kill families and children," Meshaal said. "We want Palestine, over all the territory, and the right of return for refugees."
In a Friday report, Human Rights Watch called the raid on the Dallu house "a clear violation of the laws of war."
The Israeli army said it was "the hideout of a senior Hamas militant" with "an important role in the organisation's rocket launching infrastructure," without saying whether the militant was among those killed.
Hamas marks its official anniversary on December 14, but celebrations begin on Saturday with a major rally at which Meshaal is expected to speak.
His trip comes just two weeks after an Egyptian-brokered truce ended eight days of bloodshed which left 174 Palestinians dead, more than 100 of them civilians, as well as six Israelis -- four civilians and two soldiers.
Israel said the visit proved there was no blockade on Gaza.
"This visit by Meshaal, which follows that of the Qatari emir and the Egyptian prime minister and other officials, proves there is no Israeli blockade on Gaza," said foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor, referring to a measure put in place by Israel in 2006 but later eased.
Founded in 1987 shortly after the start of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, Hamas was inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
Its charter calls for the eventual destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamic state on the pre-1948 borders of the British Palestine Mandate.
In 2006, Hamas won a landslide general election victory, routing the long-dominant Fatah party of president Mahmud Abbas. Some 18 months later, Hamas ousted Fatah forces from Gaza after several weeks of running street battles.