Thousands of Hamas terrorists paraded with weapons through the streets of Gaza City on Sunday in the group's largest show of force in years, defying Palestinian efforts to ban public arms displays.
The march by 10,000 members of the Islamic faction's armed wing also dealt a blow to hopes that Israel's withdrawal of its army from the Gaza Strip last week could lead to a quick resumption of peace talks for Palestinian statehood.
Israel has said it would not resume talks under a U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan unless the Palestinians disarm terror groups such as Hamas, bent on Israel's destruction.
Hamas leaders vowed to continue fighting Israel as tens of thousands cheered and waved the group's green flags and masked gunmen hoisted assault rifles, rockets and anti-tank missiles.
"We will not rest and will not abandon the path of Jihad and martyrdom as long as one inch of our land remained in the hands of the Jews," said Raed Saed, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza City, using the Arabic term for holy war.
“We are celebrating our victory in Gaza and now we are headed toward Jerusalem, Nablus, Akko, Haifa, the Galilee and all of Palestine,” he said.
“Sharon, you should know that we will win - the only language spoken will be the language of weapons. We are young people who aspire to die for Allah and for the weapons we are carrying.”
The demonstration, which Hamas called its largest armed protest since its founding in the late 1980s, openly defied Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who vowed in a speech last Tuesday he would not tolerate the "chaos of weapons."
"We are here addressing a clear message to whom it may concern that anybody who tries to crack down on Hamas is going to fail," said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a Hamas leader.
'Rafah must be free of Zionist soldiers'
Senior Hamas political leaders also took part in the rally, which was seen as part of the organization’s campaign in light of Israel’s statements against the inclusion of Hamas in the elections.
Abbas and PA Interior Minister Naser Yusuf said in response to the Israeli call that the elections are an internal Palestinian affair and that no one would prevent Hamas from participating in the Palestinian elections.
“Only the Palestinians will determine who their representatives will be and which political plan will represent them,” Yusuf said recently.
Some Palestinian officials contend that Israel’s statements against the participation of Hamas in the elections are aimed at strengthening the organization so it would win the elections. This way, according to the officials, Israel would be able to claim that there is no partner on the Palestinian side and that the unilateral policy should therefore continue.
On Sunday Hamas spokesman Moshir al-Masri told Ynet that Sharon's warning to the Palestinian Authority not to include Hamas in the upcoming Palestinian elections would "only strengthen us."
Meanwhile, Hamas representatives and Abbas met in Gaza to discuss the border crossings and other issues.
Hamas leader Ismail Wahania said following the meeting that the sides agreed that there should be no Israeli presence at the Rafah crossing in Gaza.
“The crossing must be Palestinian-Egyptian and free of Zionist soldiers,” he said.
“Any Zionist presence will be confronted by Palestinian resistance.”
Reuters contributed to this report