Tens of thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of gunmen and children waving mock weapons, rallied in Gaza celebrating the 29th anniversary of the founding of the Islamic group Hamas that rules the territory.
Loudspeakers blasted Hamas’ slogans through the streets on Wednesday as rockets mounted on pick-up trucks rolled by. Hundreds of masked men marched and dozens of children wielding imitation assault rifles attended with their families.
Khalil al-Hayya, a Hamas official, delivered a fiery speech at the rally full of rhetoric against Israel. He also called for reconciliation with the Fatah party, led by Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas, but only under Hamas’ terms.
Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 after routing troops loyal to Abbas in bloody street battles. Palestinians have since been divided between Gaza under Hamas and Abbas governing parts of the West Bank. Several rounds of reconciliation talks have been held between the two groups, but these failed to achieve any breakthroughs.
Adnan Abu Amer, a professor of political science at Ummah University, in Kenya, said he believes that reconciliation with Fatah is the primary challenge facing Hamas. He told Anadolu Agency the situation was “a running wound” that contributed to Hamas’ isolation.
“Reconciliation [with Fatah] will give Hamas a historical and political role while improving the group’s external prospects as well,” said Abu Amer.
Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza after it was taken over by Hamas, which has fought three wars with Israel since then, including a 50-day clash in 2014 that left more than 2,000 Palestinians – mostly civilians – dead.
Israel says the blockade was necessary to prevent Hamas from obtaining weapons. Critics argue it amounts to collective punishment. The group is struggling to pay salaries to its members because of the blockade.
Hamas has also succeeded in capturing a number of Israeli soldiers, including army sergeant Gilad Shalit in 2006, who was later traded for 1,050 Palestinian prisoners in a 2011 swap deal.
In Gaza, Hamas runs an expansive network of civil society and humanitarian organisations. This, say observers, is one of the reasons for the group’s continued popularity.
The current head of Hamas is Khaled Meshaal, who remains based in Qatar’s capital of Doha. His deputy is Ismail Haniyeh, who lives in the blockaded Gaza Strip.
In 2006, Hamas won a majority in Palestinian legislative elections. The results of the elections, however, were not recognised by either Israel or the US.
Some Palestinian factions, including Fatah, refused to participate in the subsequent Hamas-led government, accusing it of failing to table a viable political programme.