Israel, which is reluctantly coming to terms with the shifting Palestinian power balance, mostly kept silent on the visit. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said Israel did not differentiate among various Hamas leaders.
"Hamas is Hamas is Hamas," said the spokesman, Yigal Palmor.
Fifteen years ago, Mashaal was nearly assassinated in Jordan by Israeli agents who squirted a deadly poison in his ear, narrowly escaping after the U.S. forced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then serving his first term as premier, to provide the antidote.
Now a bolstered Mashaal appears in Gaza undeterred by neighboring Israel. Mashaal referred to the assassination attempt by "the foolish Netanyahu," saying, "God was stronger than him and his conspiracy."
Thousands of masked Hamas militants deployed throughout Gaza to protect Mashaal's convoy, with rocket propelled grenades, assault rifles and anti-aircraft weaponry in tow.
During Friday's visit, which was timed for the 25th anniversary of Hamas' founding, Mashaal also paid homage at the house of the group's spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, who was paralyzed in a childhood accident and killed by a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter on March 22, 2004.
The assassination came at a time of heavy Israeli-Palestinian fighting that saw Hamas suicide bombers detonate their explosives inside buses, restaurants and other public places across Israel.
"The resistance was launched from this humble house, Yassin the giant of Jihad operated from here. We pledge to continue his path," Mashaal told reporters at Yassin's house, which has been turned into a museum of sorts. Yassin's sons and grandchildren greeted Mashaal, who stopped for a few moments by Yassin's broken wheelchair.
Daraghmeh reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.
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