Hamas marked the 20th anniversary of its founding with a huge rally Saturday, sending a message of strength and defiance even as it is struggling to keep Gaza the Strip from sinking deeper into poverty.
Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters gathered in a sandy lot and nearby streets, waving green Islamic flags. The crowd appeared to be at least equal in size to a march last month in support of Hamas' rival, Fatah. That rally drew 250,000 in a major challenge to Hamas.
A large turnout Saturday was seen as critical for the increasingly embattled Hamas, which seized control of Gaza by force in June. Since then, the coastal strip has been virtually cut off from the world, with Israel and Egypt sharply restricting access, and 1.5 million Gazans have been driven deeper into poverty.
"This is the real referendum on the popularity of resistance, the people converging behind Hamas," said Zayed Herzallah, a 28-year old merchant, who brought a van full of young relatives.
Hamas was founded in Gaza in December 1987, after the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. It is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt and is seen as the mother of all fundamentalist factions in the Arab Sunni world.
Large pictures of Hamas leaders, both in Gaza and in exile, were draped across the speakers' podium. A black banner hanging from a nearby building read, in Arabic, English and French: "We will not recognize Israel."
Saturday's rally in Gaza (Photo: Reuters)
In the crowd were dozens of members of the Hamas military wing, among them armed men carrying replicas of home-made Qassam rockets. Some 50 female members of the military wing also marched, dressed in long robes and sporting military-style ammunition vests. Some covered their faces with veils, others with ski masks. Several took to the stage, waving green Hamas flags.
'Abbas has no mandate'
In an anniversary message to Hamas TV, the group's top leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, said Hamas will not abandon violence. "This is our real choice, our trump card, which causes the enemy to succumb to us," he said.
He said moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the West Bank, does not have the mandate to negotiate with Israel. "Our people are able to launch a third and fourth uprising until the dawn of victory arrives," he warned.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas representative in the Palestinian parliament, said during the rally that "the enemy's (Israel) exit from Gaza will be nothing like its entrance; Gaza will become a graveyard for its soldiers.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh stressed yet again that the group would not recognize Israel.
"Only by way of jihad and the resistance will we be able to liberate Palestine, Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque, not through negotiations, the meetings and the smiles and kisses," he said.
"The hundreds of thousands participating in this rally are proof that only Hamas' way is triumphant and that Israel withdrew from Gaza unconditionally due to the resistance. The resistance forced Israel to pull out of south Lebanon, and in this way our fighters were able to capture (IDF soldier) Gilad Shalit"
After Hamas seized Gaza, Abbas set up a moderate government in the West Bank, winning strong international support and opening the way to the resumption of peace talks with Israel last week.
On Monday, donor countries are gathering in Paris for a pledging conference, and have been asked to give $5.6 billion to Abbas' government over three years. The United States said Friday it will pledge about $500 million.
Tensions rose between Hamas and Fatah ahead of the rally.
In the West Bank, Abbas' security forces arrested 26 Hamas supporters on Friday, Hamas officials said. Security officials confirmed arrests, but would not give a number.
Also Friday, Hamas police arrested Omar Al-Ghoul, an adviser to Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and seized some of his belongings. Al-Ghoul was the most senior Fatah politician to be detained since Hamas forces overtook the territory in June.
Also Friday, three people were killed in a mysterious explosion at a Fatah-organized funeral in Gaza City. Witnesses said a man carrying explosives in a jacket accidentally detonated them, while Hamas security said a member of the procession threw a pipe bomb.
Fatah quickly accused Hamas of being behind the explosion, and the West Bank government announced a national day of mourning Saturday. Hamas denied involvement, and issued orders to question another senior Fatah official in Gaza, Ibrahim Abu Naja, accusing him spreading the rumors. As of Saturday, Abu Naja was not in detention.
Fatah's violent offshoot warned in a statement that targeting Fatah leaders would lead to "open war" with Hamas.