GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, AP -In a challenge to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, dozens of masked Hamas gunmen took over Gaza City”s central square on Saturday and announced they would not stop attacks on Israel, despite Israel”s ongoing withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
The show of force by Hamas came just as Abbas announced Jan. 25 as the date for legislative election, a move that could boost his international credibility and encourage Hamas to hold its fire during the pullout.
Abbas, who is under intense international pressure to disarm militant groups, has been urging them not to flaunt their weapons in public. However, even the Al Aqsa Martyrs” Brigades, a group with ties to Abbas” ruling Fatah movement, has largely ignored his appeal.
On Saturday, several dozen Hamas gunmen took over Gaza”s central square and closed all entrances to it. Police cruisers approached but did not interfere as the gunmen announced they would not lay down their arms.
"This retreat does not mean the end of our battle, but it is the beginning," said a spokesman for the Hamas military wing, who identified himself only by his nom-de-geurre, Abu Obaideh.
"Our battle with the (Israeli) enemy is long and will continue," Abu Obaideh said, addressing a group of some 40 armed and masked Hamas members who had gathered in a square outside the Palestinian Parliament building.
Israel is in the midst of evacuating 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the move is necessary to boost Israel”s security.
But Palestinians have tried to portray the move as a victory for them.
On Friday Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said Israel was quitting Gaza because of Palestinian "sacrifices" and "patience," and he promised the withdrawal would lead to further pullouts from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Hamas, which has carried out dozens of attacks and suicide bombings against Israeli targets during the more than four years of violence, said it would continue the armed struggle until these goals are achieved.
The Palestinians claim all of Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem for a future state.
Hamas had agreed to halt attacks against Israelis in the run up to the withdrawal. Israeli and Palestinian violence has also dropped since a February cease fire was declared.