- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 1, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | A top Syria-based Hamas leader secretly crossed into Gaza for his first visit in decades, an Egyptian security official on the border said Saturday.

Moussa Abu Marzouk entered the Gaza Strip late Thursday with three other Hamas officials before returning to Egypt the following day, the official said. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Hamas’ leadership is divided between the Gaza Strip, which the group rules, and its top officials living in Damascus. Mr. Abu Marzouk is No. 2 in the Hamas hierarchy. He was born in Gaza and grew up in a refugee camp in the southern part of the strip, but hasn’t been back in several decades.

Hamas has been holding talks in Cairo seeking reconciliation with its Fatah rival. Both sides are working to form a unity government. The purpose of Mr. Abu Marzouk’s visit remains unknown. Hamas denies he entered Gaza, and Mr. Abu Marzouk’s relatives in Gaza said they had not seen him.

In addition to Palestinian reconciliation talks, international and regional diplomats also are currently involved in efforts to try to cement a truce between Israel and Hamas and pledge funds to help rebuild Gaza after Israel’s punishing three-week-long offensive.

On Saturday, two rockets fired from Gaza crashed into southern Israel - one into a school that was closed for the weekend in the coastal city of Ashkelonand, another into an open field.

There were no Palestinian claims of responsibility for the rocket fire, which highlighted the fragility of the truce that was called separately by Israel and Hamas on Jan. 18.

The Israeli military says Palestinian militants have fired more than a hundred rockets at Israel since then. Israel has continued to strike against tunnels beneath Gaza’s border with Egypt that it says militants use to smuggle weapons.

Also Saturday, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The meeting came after Mr. Solana toured the Gaza Strip on Friday. He was the highest-ranking European official to visit the territory since it was overrun by Hamas in June 2007. Mr. Solana did not meet with Gaza’s militant Hamas, boycotted internationally as a terror group.

On Monday, international donors will meet in Egypt for a conference on Gaza’s reconstruction. The Palestinians are seeking $2.8 billion. Mr. Solana said Saturday donor money would be sent to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, bypassing Hamas’ Gaza leadership.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to attend the conference. She will then travel to Israel and the West Bank to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

• Associated Press writers Ashraf Sweilam in El-Arish, Egypt, and Dalia Nammari in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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