GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The leader of the Islamic terrorist group Hamas vowed to continue fighting Israel Saturday, as hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Gazans turned out to celebrate the organization’s 25th anniversary.
Khaled Mashaal’s visit to the Palestinian territory — a first in his lifetime of exile — underscores Hamas’ rising clout and regional acceptance since its eight-day conflict with Israel last month.
At the main stage in Gaza City, a roaring crowd greeted Mashaal and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who emerged from a door built into a large model of a rocket fired at Israeli cities during the recent fighting.
Hamas’ green dominated the gathering, where some children wore military uniforms and others carried guns. Masked gunmen holding automatic rifles flanked the podium where Mashaal gave a fiery speech.
“We are not giving up any inch of Palestine. It will remain Islamic and Arab for us and nobody else. Jihad and armed resistance is the only way,” Mashaal said, referring to holy war. “We cannot recognize Israel’s legitimacy.”
Mashaal said he would continue to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails — referring to a swap last year where an abducted Israeli soldier was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
“From the sea to the river, from north to south, we will not give up any part of Palestine — it is our country, our right and our homeland,” said the Hamas chief. “We are all one,” he added, referring to Palestinians residing in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and inside Israel. “We are all united in the way of resistance.”
The 56-year-old Mashaal, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads Hamas from the Gulf state of Qatar, entered Gaza on Friday via Egypt, for the first time ever and after a long exile from Palestinian territory, to attend the mass rally.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians gathered in Gaza on Saturday to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Hamas. Tributes to Ahmed Jabari, the Hamas terror chief killed by Israel on the first day of Operation Pillar of Defense last month, were central to the event.
Hamas supporters, some of them flashing victory signs, were braving the rain to attend the event. Some parents brought children dressed in military uniforms.
Palestinian sources reported that the terror organization’s supporters from throughout the region had arrived in Gaza to participate in the festivities. Israel Radio said supporters had come from across the Middle East, and that 100 Muslims had also traveled from the United Kingdom.
Israel said Thursday that it did not control who entered Gaza from Egypt. The Foreign Ministry noted that the entry of Mashaal and other supporters to Gaza underlined that Israel did not maintain a hermetic land blockade on the Strip.
A spokesmen for Hamas’s military wing, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, warned Israelis to prepare their passports.
“We fought the Zionist entity with limited power,” he said. “What will happen when we fight with all our might?
“Zionists, you should prepare your passports and get ready to disappear,” the spokesman added.
In a special message released in honor of the anniversary, Hamas leaders vowed to continue the path of resistance and jihad “to liberate Palestine.”
“The great crimes perpetrated against us by the Zionist occupation only fuel our desire to resist and fight,” read the message.
The anniversary comes two weeks after the bloodiest round of Israel-Gaza fighting in four years.
Hamas has portrayed itself as the victor of the eight-day conflict because Israel agreed to an Egyptian-brokered truce instead of sending in ground troops, as it initially threatened. It has received a boost from the political ascension of its parent movement, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, in the wake of last year’s Arab Spring revolts — especially in Egypt.
It has also upped its profile as master of the Gaza Strip, leading it through the bloodiest round of fighting with Israel in four years and coming to a cease-fire arrangement in talks brokered by Egypt.
Hamas claimed victory in the conflict after holding its own despite airstrikes and maintaining an almost constant barrage of rocket attacks on Israeli cities.
The Nov. 21 cease-fire stipulated Israel would stop targeting terrorists. That, along with unprecedented support from Egypt, allowed Mashaal to make the visit without fear of Israeli assassination, which he has narrowly escaped in the past.
Israel, the US and European Union list Hamas as a terrorist organization. Israel is now holding indirect talks with the group as a result of the cease-fire arrangement.