RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) -Thousands of flag-waving chanting supporters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party have poured into central Ramallah for a second rally in less than a week aimed at staging a show of force agains the ruling Hamas movement.
Waving Palestinian flags and the yellow Fatah standard, the participants gathered in chilly temperatures under sunny skies in central Ramallah, next to the mausoleum of Fatah’s founder and long-time leader, Yasser Arafat.
Abbas, who took over from Arafat as Palestinian Authority president two years ago, was due to address the crowd shortly after 1000 GMT.
“Fatah will return! Fatah will return!” shouted some demonstrators.
“Shiites, Shiites!” chanted others, denouncing what they see as Iranian influence over Hamas.
The demonstration follows a huge gathering in a Gaza City stadium on Sunday, which attracted thousands of Fatah supporters in an impressive show of force after weeks of factional clashes.
Violence between Fatah and Hamas has killed more than 30 people and wounded more than 100 in the volatile Gaza Strip in less than a month.
In the West Bank, there has been a string of tit-for-tat abductions by sympathisers of both groups, as well as sporadic shooting.
Over the past several days the armed clashes in Gaza have subsided as a war of words has raged between the two rival factions.
On Wednesday, Fatah’s strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, lashed out at Hamas in an interview with Israel’s Haaretz daily: “They lost the Palestinian street, which sees what they have become. A bunch of murderers and thieves who execute Palestinians only because they are Fatah members.”
Dahlan, the former head of the pro-Fatah preventative security force and a one-time minister who is currently an MP, is widely reviled by the ruling Islamists. Under his stewardship, the security services led a crackdown on militant groups, including Hamas, in the late 1990s.
Referring to Dahlan on Monday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum said: “We will not allow these putschists to drive our people toward the brink of civil war. We remain vigilant in the face of these putschists and their plots.”
Gaza has been embroiled in factional fighting since December 16, when Abbas called for early elections in order to resolve a months-long standoff with Hamas over forming a coalition government. Hamas rejected the move.
Abbas says early presidential and parliamentary elections are the only way to try to lift a debilitating Western aid freeze imposed on the Palestinian government after Hamas took power in March.
Hamas says early polls would amount to a coup against its democratically elected government.
The West, which along with Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization, is demanding that the ruling Islamists renounce violence, agree to recognize Israel and abide by past peace deals in order for the aid to resume.
Hamas routed long-dominant Fatah in elections last January that were called free and fair by Western observers, and it has steadfastly refused to bend to Western demands.
The aid freeze — accompanied by Israel withholding customs duties collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority — has plunged the territories into what the World Bank has called their worst-ever economic crisis.
Amid the simmering Palestinian tensions, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was due to arrive in the region this weekend to meet with Israeli leaders and Abbas in a bid to jumpstart the dormant Middle East peace process.