Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal has arrived in Gaza for his first visit to the Palestinian territory 45 years he left the West Bank.

He drove through the crossing along with his deputy Mussa Abu Marzuk. He got out from the car and kissed the ground and prayed before embracing Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniya.

Meshaal was due to spend 48 hours in the Gaza Strip and attend a mass "victory" rally called to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas.

"This is my third birth. I was born in 1956, and my second birth was when I survived the assassination attempt initiated by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu," Mashaal said. "But God was stronger than him, and I hope Allah will grant me martyrdom in Gaza.

"My fourth birth will be on the day Palestine is liberated. Today it is Gaza and tomorrow it will be Ramallah, then Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa," he added.

"This is a historic moment for the Palestinian people and a victory for both the people and Gaza."

The 56-year-old, who was previously prevented from crossing by the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, will meet members of various Palestinian movements and residents of Gaza "as well as representatives of the families of martyrs, prisoners and those injured in the last Israeli aggression against Gaza," according to a statement by Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

He will visit the homes of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed by Israel in 2004, and top commander Ahmed Jabari, killed in an airstrike at the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defence in November.

Hamas expressed fears that Israel may try to assassinate Mashaal during his visit.

"Israel is like a wounded tiger looking for some sort of victory in an attempt to maintain its dignity," a Hamas figure told Ynet website.

The victory rally will be used by Hamas to proclaim victory in its eitght-day war with Israel that killed 170 Palestinians and six Israelis and ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

A large stage has been set up in Gaza City, complete with a huge model of the homemade M75 rocket that was fired at both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in November's conflict.

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal kisses the ground and praysReuters
Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and senior Hamas leader Ismail HaniyehReuters
Arrival at the Rafah crossing in the southern Gaza StripReuters
Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal is greeted by a Palestinian boyReuters