On Friday, Hamas members and supporters descended on the city centre from all over the Gaza Strip, massing in the Square of the Unknown Soldier after the main Friday prayers.

 

Supporters clutched green flags and pictures of the Islamist movement's heroes. The crowd denounced "American and European interference" in Palestinian parliamentary elections due on 25 January.

 

Popular Hamas

 

Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman, addressed the rally saying tough policies waged against the Palestinians by Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, and Shaul Mofaz, his defence minister, have increased Hamas's popularity.

 

Al-Masri said: "We tell Sharon and Mofaz: the assassinations, the arrests and the aggressions have pushed our people to say 'yes to Hamas' much more strongly.

 

Al-Masri (R) said tough anti-Hamas
policies have added to its success 

"To Bush whose administration wants to prevent Hamas from participating in the elections, we say: Hamas is the choice of the Palestinian people."

 

Khalil al-Hayyeh, a Hamas leader, said that the faction would not accept "under any circumstances" a delay of the elections, the first parliamentary polls Hamas is to contest.

 

Israel's recognition

 

On 16 December, the US Congress backed a resolution asserting that the faction should not be allowed to participate in elections until it recognises "Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state".

 

Last Sunday, Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, said Brussels would have serious difficulties in working with the Palestinian Authority if Hamas wins the legislative polls.

 

Hamas, an acronym in Arabic for the Islamic Resistance Movement, was created on 14 December 1987 by a group of fighters from the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

Since the second Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, Israel has killed dozens of its leaders and fighters.

 

Hamas has claimed most of the anti-Israeli attacks over the last five years.