GAZA, (Reuters) – Hamas threatened to launch a new uprising against Israel on Saturday when hundreds of thousands of Islamist supporters rallied in Gaza City to mark the group’s 20th anniversary. “Our people are capable of launching a third and a fourth intifada until the dawn of victory rises up,” said Khaled Meshaal, the group’s exiled leader, in a speech recorded on Friday at his base in Damascus.
The central square in Gaza City was awash with green flags and dozens of armed, masked men from the group’s military wing patrolled in a crowd estimated at between 300,000 and 500,000.
Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said the movement was growing more popular because of its stance against the United States and Israel. “Today is the day of Jihad, resistance and uprising,” Haniyeh said. “Those who remain committed to the constant rights of their people, those who make an enemy of America and the Zionist occupation (Israel) gain popularity. This is Hamas.”
Founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed by Israel in a 2004 air strike, the group has a charter that calls for the elimination of the Jewish state.
Tensions are high between Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s secular Fatah faction which the Islamist group routed from Gaza in a civil war in June.
The rally was held at the spot where seven Fatah supporters were killed by gunfire last month while commemorating the fifth anniversary of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Hamas said Abbas ordered a ban on similar pro-Hamas rallies in the West Bank where the Palestinian President’s Fatah movement holds sway.
Meshaal said Abbas, whose administration is backed by the West, lacked the support of the Palestinian people. “Whoever thinks his legitimacy comes from the international backing is under an illusion, the legitimacy is the people,” Meshaal said.
Israel’s Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter said on Saturday that Hamas had got “significantly stronger” since Israel pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, and “the only thing stopping Hamas (from taking over the West Bank) is Israel, not the Palestinian Authority.”
Alluding to last month’s Israeli-Palestinian talks in Annapolis, Maryland, Haniyeh said conferences “will achieve nothing”. “We will never cede our land … The choice of resistance and Jihad is the shortest way to liberate Palestine and return Jerusalem,” Haniyeh said.
In another speech to the rally, senior Hamas official Mushir al-Masri warned Israel to expect many casualties if troops invade the coastal territory in an attempt to stop almost daily rocket firing by militants into Israel.
“Jews, go back, because we have already dug graves for you,” Masri said. Israel carries out regular raids on Gaza and has killed dozens of militants in the past month.
This week Israel’s army chief said a major Israeli incursion was becoming more likely to stop militants firing rockets and mortars into Israel.
Senior official Osama al-Muzaini said Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted in a cross-border raid in 2006 and is being held by militants in the Gaza Strip, would be freed only in exchange for Hamas prisoners held by Israel. “The soldier Gilad Shalit will never see freedom before our prisoners are freed,” Muzaini said.
In a bid to bolster Abbas, Israel has released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in recent months, almost all of whom are aligned with his Fatah movement. Israel still holds about 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in its jails.