GAZA (Reuters) - Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal ended his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Monday with a pledge his Islamist movement would strive to heal political rifts with Palestinian rivals who hold sway in the occupied West Bank.
His comments reinforced promises he and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the rival Fatah movement, made to each other in a telephone conversation a month ago, to forge ahead with a stalled unity deal opposed by Israel.
During his four-day stay in Gaza, Meshaal had angered Israel with vows to never recognise the Jewish state and to seek to “free the land of Palestine inch by inch”.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday accused Europe, the United Nations and Abbas of reacting to calls by Hamas for the destruction of Israel with “deafening silence”.
In brief remarks before crossing back to Egypt from Gaza, Meshaal sidestepped the conflict with Israel, and focused on internal Palestinian feuds.
“I entered Gaza carrying a great love for it and I exit with a greater love in my heart,” said the 56-year-old Hamas leader, who lives in exile.
“From Gaza I have stressed the need for reconciliation, and I do so again. Gaza and the West Bank are two dear parts of the greater Palestinian homeland, and they need each other.”
Hamas has ruled the tiny Gaza Strip and its 1.7 million population since 2007, when it won a brief civil war with its secular rivals Fatah, which still controls the occupied West Bank. Israel had pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005.
The two main Palestinian factions have tried, often with little enthusiasm, to patch up their differences. Meshaal has vowed to push for the unity which most Palestinians say they want.
Aside from their quarrel over Gaza, the two Palestinian factions are also divided over Abbas’ peacemaking efforts with Israel, which Hamas opposes. But the talks with Israel have been frozen for two years, making it easier to sidestep that issue in order to reconcile.
Both parties hope to boost ties on the heels of an eight-day war between Hamas and Israel last month that ended with a truce, and a Fatah-led initiative at the United Nations General Assembly recognising Palestinian statehood.
Meshaal became Hamas’s chief leader in 2004 after Israel assassinated the group’s co-founders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi. He himself had survived a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan.
Hamas’s 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and creation of a state in all of the area once covered by a British mandate to rule Palestine, before the creation of Israel in 1948.
Some Hamas leaders have suggested they would back a long-term truce with Israel along with the creation of a Palestinian state on land Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Meshaal, though, took a hardline approach in his Gaza visit.
“Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa,” he told a rally on Saturday. Ramallah is in the West Bank, while Haifa and Jaffa are a part of Israel, with sizeable Arab populations.
On Sunday he said at the Gaza Islamic University: “We do not accept the two-state solution,” or Palestinian statehood alongside Israel.
In remarks to foreign correspondents in Jerusalem, Netanyahu assailed Abbas for failing to condemn Meshaal’s remarks and declaring his intention to unite with Hamas.
Netanyahu blasted Europe as well, alluding to the summoning of Israeli ambassadors there in the past week to protest against Israel’s announcement of plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank, after the U.N. vote recognising Palestinian statehood.
“The leaders of Hamas openly called for the destruction of Israel. Where was the outrage? Where were the U.N. resolutions? Where was President Abbas?” Netanyahu said.
“There was nothing. There was silence. And it was deafening silence. Well, we can’t accept that,” Netanyahu said, adding “Israel will not remain silent.”
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Andrew Roche