By IBRAHIM BARZAK and MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH 12/07/12 10:07 AM ET EST AP
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — 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 now 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.
Mashaal, 56, was also welcomed by a group of Palestinian children of Gaza militants killed by Israel in recent years, wearing military-style uniforms. Thousands of Hamas supporters lined the streets as Mashaal and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh drove by, waving and flashing victory signs.
That the visit took place at all is a window on the changing climate of the Middle East and the balance of power among the factions and nations.