Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party staged a massive rally Friday in the Gaza Strip, the first such gathering in the territory since Hamas seized control there in 2007 and a reflection of the warming ties between the two rival factions.
In a speech from his Ramallah headquarters in the West Bank, Abbas declared that “victory is near… We will soon meet in Gaza.”
He named a list of Palestinians killed in decades of struggle against Israel — including those from rival Palestinian movements, such as Hamas’s spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. He said that when Fatah was founded, the Palestinians’ situation was far worse than today. “The world didn’t recognize us. We didn’t have a state or an entity on the political map,” he said. “We were regarded as refugees who needed charity.” But “a trailblazing force” had insistently sought to change that, a process that culminated at the UN, he said, when the General Assembly on November 29 upgraded the Palestinians’ status.
Protesting the “occupation and blockade” imposed by Israel, and the expansion of settlements in Jerusalem, Abbas declared, “Our mission is to unify our efforts to save Jerusalem our capital.”
Throngs had camped out overnight in a downtown Gaza square to ensure themselves a spot for the anniversary commemoration of Fatah founding, and tens of thousands marched early Friday carrying Fatah banners. By early afternoon, a hundred thousand people had gathered, Israel Radio reported.
Top party officials arrived in Gaza for the first time since they were ousted from Gaza by Hamas rivals in 2007.
“There is no substitute for national unity,” Abbas said in the televised address.
Senior Fatah official Nabil Shaath said the party received a congratulatory message from Hamas’s Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who expressed hope that the two factions could reconcile their differences and work together as joint representatives of the Palestinian people.
“This festival will be like a wedding celebration for Palestine, Jerusalem, the prisoners, the refugees and all the Palestinians,” said Shaath.
Reconciliation between the two factions, however, is still far from coming to fruition. Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, considered more pragmatic than Hamas’s Gaza-based hard-line leaders, forged a reconciliation agreement with Abbas in 2011.
But the Gaza-based leadership, unsupportive of the agreement, has held up implementing it. Also, Fatah enjoys Western support and it has been pressured not to forge a unity deal with the terrorist Hamas, which calls for Israel’s destruction.
Fadwa Taleb, 46, who worked as a police officer during the previous rule of Fatah, gathered at the rally with her family. “We feel like birds freed from our cage today,” Taleb said. “We are happy and feel powerful again.”
A Gaza security official said a Fatah-linked former aide to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat died of a heart attack in the square overnight, saying he was shocked by the large crowd that was allowed to gather.
In the West Bank, Abbas signed a presidential decree changing the name of the Palestinian Authority to the “State of Palestine,” following the Palestinians’ upgraded status at the United Nations as a non-member observer state.
According to the decree, reported by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa Thursday night, all stamps, signs, and official letterhead will be changed to bear the new name.
It is the first concrete, albeit symbolic, step the Palestinians have taken following the November decision by the United Nations. Abbas has hesitated to take more dramatic steps, like filing war crimes indictments against Israel at the International Criminal Court, a tactic that only a recognized state can carry out.
With the vast crowds waving yellow Fatah flags and chanting slogans, the large Friday rally to celebrate the movement’s 48th anniversary was a sign of growing detente with Hamas.
A number of Fatah activists and officials traveled from the West Bank to Gaza for the rally, including Jibril Rajoub, who formerly headed the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank; negotiator Shaath, Fatah cofounder Abdul Aziz Shaheen; and Fadwa Barghouti, the wife of jailed activist Marwan Barghouti.
In early December, Hamas celebrated its own anniversary, holding rallies in several West Bank cities for the first time in five years.
Hamas has gained new support among Palestinians following eight days of fighting with Israel in November, in which its terrorists fired some 1,500 rockets into Israel.