GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – The Palestinian militant group Hamas marked the anniversary of its 1987 founding with street celebrations Monday, hoping to show it still has broad support despite four years of rule that have led Gaza into war, poverty and isolation.
Gaza was decked out in Islamic green, with Hamas flags fluttering from roofs, lampposts and cars. Some parents dressed small children in combat fatigues and green Hamas headbands.
Hamas’ radio and TV stations exhorted Gazans to attend a mass rally after Muslim midday prayers. Thousands flocked to the rally site, a sandy lot in downtown Gaza, where a huge banner draped over the wall of a building showed a picture of Jerusalem’s main Islamic shrine and photos of Hamas leaders.
Last year’s anniversary drew tens of thousands of supporters. But since then, Hamas has suffered several setbacks, key among them Israel’s military offensive on Gaza last winter.
The three-week war, launched to halt rocket fire from Gaza, failed to dislodge Hamas but inflicted heavy losses on the group and made it harder for the militants to provide for 1.5 million Gazans.
Hamas has been unable to rebuild homes, sewage lines and water pipes destroyed in the assault because Israel and Egypt continue to enforce a border blockade. Basic goods like food and some medicines are allowed into Gaza, but construction materials are not.
Smuggling tunnels bring in goods from Egypt, though those supply route may eventually be cut off. Egypt has recently begun installing border fortifications to block the tunnels, which also serve as a conduit for Hamas weapons. Israel first sealed Gaza in June 2006 after Hamas-allied militants captured an Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. It was tightened a year later, when Hamas overran the coastal strip, ousting forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas now faces an impasse on two interconnected deals that could pry Gaza’s borders open, a swap trading Schalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and a power-sharing deal with Abbas and his Fatah movement. A
German mediator appears to have achieved some recent progress on a prisoner swap with Israel, but there has been no apparent headway in the Palestinian unity talks. Ghazi Hamad, one of the more pragmatic officials in the group, said Hamas would not be able to rule alone indefinitely. “No one can expel Hamas from the political game … but Hamas cannot play alone and Fatah cannot play alone,” he said.
Hamas is an offshoot of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood and was founded in Gaza in Dec. 1987, several days after the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation.
Since the 1990s, the group has dispatched dozens of suicide bombers who killed hundreds of Israelis, and Israel and the international community consider it a terrorist organization.
Among Palestinians, Hamas gradually emerged as a serious rival to Fatah, which had dominated Palestinian politics for decades but was tainted by corruption.
Hamas defeated Fatah in 2006 parliament elections. The two groups attempted to rule jointly until Hamas’ bloody takeover of Gaza in June 2007. Hamas has since deepened its control of the coastal strip, silencing critics and launching a “virtue campaign” to enforce Islamic morals. The Palestinian territories remain split in two, with Hamas running Gaza and Fatah ruling the West Bank. Hamas started out as a movement committed to Israel’s destruction. Since its election victory, Hamas’ positions appear to have softened somewhat, though Hamas officials often make contradictory statements.
The movement’s exiled leader, Khaled Mashaal, has said in recent months that he backs the establishment of a Palestinian state in the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war, the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. However, he won’t say whether a Palestinian state alongside Israel would be the final objective or a stepping stone to Israel’s destruction.