Gaza's Hamas leader Haniyeh embarks on regional tour
GAZA (Reuters) - Gaza's top political leader ventured from the territory on Sunday on his first regional political tour since change swept the Arab world, to lobby support for Hamas which controls the coastal strip.
Hamas's Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh said he decided to embark on the trip after being encouraged by recent political changes that have taken place in Arab countries.
Haniyeh is favoured by many in Hamas to stand as a candidate in an election for the Palestinian presidency slated for May 4, 2012, although officials in the group have said it was too soon to discuss candidates.
"The Arab Spring has opened a wide horizon for us and we must take advantage to promote the interests of our people," he told reporters before crossing Gaza's land border into Egypt.
It is his first such tour since 2007 when Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a brief and bloody civil war.
A Haniyeh aide said he will meet leaders in Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey and discuss rebuilding the Gaza Strip which suffered damage during a month-long Israeli offensive in 2008-09.
About 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 13 Israelis were killed in the war which Israel said it launched in order to curb cross-border rocket fire from Palestinian militants.
The more secular Fatah movement led by Abbas, holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinians want both areas for a future state with Arab East Jerusalem as its capital.
Missing from Haniyeh's itinerary is Syria, which has hosted Hamas's leadership in Damascus for the past decade.
The group has taken a neutral stand since the internal unrest in Syria began earlier this year. Many Hamas officials and their families have left Syria in recent weeks.
Haniyeh appealed for calm in Syria: "We have called for preserving Arab blood and for using dialogue and understanding between all the components of Arab countries," he said.
Haniyeh's first stop will be in Cairo. Egypt mediated a prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel that was completed last week and it is currently overseeing the implementation of a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah.
(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi, Editing by Ori Lewis/Maria Golovnina)
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