GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Iran’s president on Friday delivered an unprecedented speech to an annual pro-Palestinian rally in the Gaza Strip — a rare display of Iran’s importance to the Hamas terror group that rules the territory.
Speaking virtually to hundreds of supporters of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad terror group gathered at a soccer stadium in Gaza City, Iran’s conservative President Ebrahim Raisi urged Palestinians to press on with their struggle against Israel.
His speech — the first of its kind to Palestinians — appeared to culminate years of quiet diplomacy aimed at mending a rift between Hamas and its long-time patron, Iran, over the devastating civil war in Syria.
Raisi addressed the crowds of Palestinians on the occasion of “Jerusalem Day,” or al-Quds Day after the city’s Arabic name, which falls on the final Friday of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
A surge of violence in Israel and the West Bank, some of it after an Israeli police raid on the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem last week, has served to undermine the summits, which sought to de-escalate soaring Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
“The initiative to self-determination is today in the hands of the Palestinian fighters,” Raisi said, dismissing the PA that nominally rules parts of the West Bank.
“Let everyone know that we have no hesitation in supporting the resistance,” he added.
During the ceremony, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, celebrated groups in southern Lebanon, Gaza and Syria that had fired rockets into Israeli territory, describing the attacks as a response to the police raid on the Temple Mount, which Israeli authorities said was necessitated by Palestinian rioters holing up in the mosque with weapons.
“The response came like a simple electric shock,” Sinwar said of the rocket fire.
“I say to the leaders of Arab and Islamic countries that condemnations are no longer sufficient,” Sinwar said.
“There has to be a strategic change in your path –- it is ending normalization, closing the embassies and supporting the Palestinian people’s resistance.”
The Jerusalem Day rallies in Iran, an annual fixture since the 1979 Islamic revolution, are held on the last Friday of Ramadan.
“Death to Israel and to America,” protesters chanted in Tehran, waving Palestinian and Iranian flags, as well as those of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite movement Hezbollah, and burning Israeli and US flags.
Similar rallies took place in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, in Lebanon’s capital Beirut and the city of Baalbek, and in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon, AFP correspondents said.
In Jerusalem itself, vast crowds attended Friday prayers at al-Aqsa — some 130,000 people according to the Israeli police, and 250,000 according to the Jordanian Waqf Islamic affairs council which administers the mosque compound.
Afterwards, masked youths waved flags of Hamas and its armed wing. Israeli police said they had arrested eight people for waving flags supporting terror and for chants inciting violence.
Rallies were held in major Iranian cities including Tabriz, Hamedan, Yazd, Bandar Abbas and Abadan, images broadcast on state television showed.
“The Palestinians are actively confronting Israeli aggression from Gaza to the heart of Tel Aviv,” Iran’s parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said.
“Yesterday they (Palestinians) were fighting with stones, and now they hit (Israel) with rockets,” he added.
In Baghdad, where pro-Tehran parties are in power, a few hundred people marched.
“God willing, the end of Israel will be in the years to come,” read one sign.
In Syria, Palestinian fighters marched through the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, waving Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian flags.
“Jerusalem, we are coming,” they chanted.
In Lebanon, Palestinian factions paraded through the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, a Hezbollah stronghold.
“We will not abandon Palestine, the people of Palestine, or the holy sites in Palestine. This is our commitment and this is our faith,” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised statement.
“The resistance… is confident while the Israeli enemy is scared and terrified.”
Although Hamas is a Sunni Muslim group, it’s military wing has long nurtured close ties with Iran, a source of funding and a Shiite powerhouse. Hamas and Iran are brought together by a shared enmity of Israel.
While Iran has not revealed the details of its support, Hamas has publicly praised the Islamic republic for its assistance. Experts say Iran’s support is both financial and political — now mostly blueprint technology, engineering know-how and training to help the militant group grow its own homemade arsenal of advanced rockets that can reach anywhere in Israel.
A crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after Hamas violently wrested control of Gaza in 2007 has made it difficult to smuggle Iranian-made rockets into the coastal enclave in recent years.
The US State Department says Iran provides some $100 million a year to Palestinian armed groups, including Hamas and the smaller Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The civil war in Syria had for years split Hamas in two. In 2012, Hamas closed its Damascus office and left Syria following President Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown on a popular uprising. But steps toward reconciliation between Hamas and Assad late last year pointed toward Iran’s strengthening influence on Gaza’s rulers.
On Friday, Arab countries that long shunned Syria held a meeting to discuss ending its isolation, a sign of shifting alliances in the region.