mashaal ahmadinejad 248.88 ap.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hamas' exiled leader thanked his Iranian backers, saying Teheran played a "big role" in helping the Palestinian militant group during Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip, Iranian state television reported Monday.
Khaled Mashaal's visit to Iran - Hamas' top supporter - was his first since Israel launched the offensive in late December.
The "people of Gaza ... have always appreciated the political and spiritual support of the Iranian leaders and nation," state TV quoted Mashaal as saying.
Israel and the United States accuse Iran of supplying Hamas with weapons including rockets that have battered parts of southern Israel. Teheran denies the charge, saying it supports Hamas financially.
"Iran has definitely played a big role in the victory of the people of Gaza and is a partner in that victory," Mashaal, who lives in Syria, told Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a meeting, according to state TV.
Ahmadinejad warned that Israel could be plotting another invasion on Gaza and urged countries to boycott Israeli goods. The hard-line Iranian leader also reiterated his earlier calls that Israeli leaders be taken to court for the Gaza offensive, although it wasn't clear what court he had in mind and no other details were provided. "World political pressure should continue against the Zionist regime," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying.
Later Monday, Mashaal received a warm welcome by hundreds of Iranians at a ceremony at Tehran University. The crowd praised Mashaal by chanting "hail to the soldier of holy war."
Mashaal heads Hamas' political bureau and is believed to be the group's top leader. He is considered a hard-liner who consults frequently with Syrian and Iranian officials.
The exiled political leader rarely travels and usually keeps his movements secretive. But before Iran, Mashaal visited Qatar to thank officials in the Gulf Arab country for their support of Hamas during the offensive.
Hamas wrestled control of Gaza in 2007 from its Palestinian rival, Fatah. Egypt and Israel sealed off their Gaza borders after the Hamas takeover, saying it was necessary to prevent weapons from reaching the militant group. But the blockade also caused widespread shortages and suffering among Gaza's 1.4 million people.
On Sunday, Mashaal said Hamas opposes international efforts "that would deprive the Gaza people of weapons" and Gazans have the "right to resist and access weapons to achieve our rights."
Israel, along with the US and Europe, considers Hamas a terrorist group. But Iran, which does not have relations with Israel or the US, considers Hamas to be the rightful Palestinian government.