Gaza City, occupied Palestinian territories - Hundreds of thousands of Fatah supporters packed into Gaza's al-Saraya square on Friday morning to commemorate the 48th anniversary of their faction's founding. It was the first time in five years Fatah has been allowed to celebrate the date in Gaza, which is governed by its rival, Hamas.
Waving yellow flags and chanting slogans, supporters of all ages from across the length of the coastal enclave packed the city's streets since Thursday night, with many camping out - fearful of losing their spaces.
In a televised speech from Ramallah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted revellers and praised the steadfastness of the people living in Gaza.
|The huge rally drew supporters of all ages
[Mustafa Ashqar/Al Jazeera]
"Shortly, we will achieve unity and end the occupation, to finally raise the Palestinian flag in Jerusalem," he said to rapturous applause.
"Gaza was the first Palestinian territory to get rid of the occupation and settlements, and we want the blockade to be lifted so that [Gaza] can be free and be linked to the rest of the nation."
A number of Fatah activists and officials travelled from the West Bank to Gaza for the rally, including Jibril Rajoub, who formerly led Palestinian security forces in the West Bank; negotiator Nabil Shaath, Fatah cofounder Abdul Aziz Shaheen; and Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of jailed activist Marwan Barghouti.
The event is being seen as a key step forward for national Palestinian reconciliation between the religiously oriented Hamas and the secular Fatah movements. The two fronts of the rift have been getting closer since the suspension of talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority, and moreso following the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza, Operation: Pillar of Defence.
Fatah supporters in Gaza had been banned from celebrating their faction's events since 2007 - when Hamas routed Fatah from the Strip in internecine fighting, effectively banishing them to the West Bank. Hamas supporters, meanwhile, were simililarly denied the right to gather in the West Bank, until their 25th anniversary celebrations in December 2012.
Abu Hassan was heading to al-Saraya square, along with his ten children. The 45-year-old said he felt it was an historic day for an historic faction.
"Hamas won the war in Gaza and Fatah got us the Palestinian state. Today, Hamas should know that Fatah is a strong partner which can't be ignored."
- Abu Hassan, Gaza resident
"Hamas won the war in Gaza and Fatah got us the Palestinian state. Today, Hamas should know that Fatah is a strong partner which can't be ignored," he told Al Jazeera.
Abbas has been riding high since he led the Palestinians' successful bid to upgrade their status at the United Nations to a non-member observer state. On Friday, he signed a presidential decree officially changing the name of the Palestinian Authority to "The State of Palestine".
Hamas officials who were due to attend the rally bowed out, as part of the celebration's programme was cancelled after "overcrowding and a logistics failure".
"We decided not to go after we got a call from Fatah co-ordinators. They told us not to because of [damage caused by the crush of people] around the stage," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri.
About 50 people were injured, including three critical cases, said Ashraf Al-Qedra, the spokesman of the ministry of health in the Hamas government in Gaza. Rally-goers caught in the crush of the crowd suffered breathing dificulties, and some fell from precarious viewpoints.
Cooped up for the past five years without an avenue to collectively identify, excited Fatah supporters hit the streets on Friday to proclaim, loud and clear, that they still exist in Gaza.
"In the past, I used to come by my own, but this time is different," Ra'ed Omar, a former PA officer, told Al Jazeera. "I brought all my family members to send a message to Hamas that Fatah's popularity is more overwhelming now, and that they have to deal with it."
Omar was one of several who fled to Egypt after Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip. He returned a year ago, but said Hamas had subsequently banned him from leaving Gaza.
"I wish we could have elections soon," he said. "I will definitely vote for Fatah because I believed in it before Hamas was even founded."
Sabah Al-Bahnasawy, a 60-year-old woman resting from the noise of the crowd at a nearby restaurant, said that she insisted on coming - "despite old age" - because she has always been "eager to share the flavour of unity".
"I was surprised at the scene today," she said. "You can see the unity and heartiness between all the factions' supporters - which is all we need to face the occupation."
"You can see the unity and heartiness between all the factions' supporters - which is all we need to face the occupation."
- Sabah al-Bahnasawy, Gaza resident
Sabah said that reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas would improve the hard life faced by Gazans since the Strip was isolated internationally following Hamas' victory in free elections in 2006.
"[New] elections will give us the chance to have a unity government and to have a better life socially, financially and politically," she said.
It is, however, not all sunshine and roses between the two factions. Last week, Fatah said the rally would be cancelled after Hamas refused to let the group use either Saraya square or the more central al-Kateiba square - saying it could not provide security. A day later, Hamas reversed its decision and gave the rally the green light.
Taher al-Nono, a Hamas government spokesperson, said that Prime Minster Ismael Haniyeh called Mahmoud Abbas following the rally, and congratulated him on the anniversary.
"Abu Mazen [Abbas] expressed his gratitude for our co-operation and said that he wished this unity would be a starting point for close relations between the two factions," he explained.
But despite the positive atmosphere of the day, talking about imminent reconciliation may still be premature.
Mukhymar Abu Sa'ada, a political analyst and lecturer at Gaza's al-Azhar university, said that the differences between the rivals would not be overcome easily.
"You are talking about an ideological difference," he said. "Hamas believes in the one-state solution and adopts armed resistance to achieve it, while Fatah believes in the two-state solution and uses negotiations with Israel to achieve it; which can’t be easily compromised."
Hamas political chief Khaled Mashaal, deemed more pragmatic than many of the Gaza-based hardliners, managed to reach a reconciliation agreement with Abbas in 2011. But the results have yet to be fully implemented on the ground.
Gaza resident Faten Saleem, meanwhile, represents many others who have lost faith in the ability of the factions to unite in common cause.
"I no longer trust them, reconciliation is such a complicated issue," said the 23-year-old who stayed away from the rally.
"It's not just about celebrations and phone calls."