Thousands of supporters of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement held a rare gathering in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday to mark the party’s 55th anniversary.
Waving yellow Fatah flags, supporters from across the territory gathered in Gaza City to celebrate the movement founded by the late Yasser Arafat.
Some held photographs of the two former and current political leaders.
The interior ministry in Gaza granted permission for Wednesday’s rally to go ahead, according to a Hamas leader.
Gaza is ruled by Hamas, which has maintained a bitter rivalry with Fatah.
Hamas had denied their request to organize the event at one of the city’s public squares or parks and approved it for a Gaza City street. But the crowd was so big that several thousand people made their way to nearby Saraya Square, the site of the last massive anniversary festival that Hamas allowed in January 2013.
Terror organization Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas’s forces in 2007 and the two sides have remained split, with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank.
Fatah and Hamas remain bitter enemies, and repeated attempts to reconcile have failed. But in recent months, they have both pledged to hold new elections. Hamas’s decision to permit Wednesday’s demonstration appeared to be a goodwill gesture toward Fatah.
“This year is the year of Palestinian unity and Fatah’s unity behind its leader Mahmoud Abbas,” said Ahmed Hilles, the top Fatah official in Gaza.
Fatah sought to portray the large turnout as a reflection of its good standing, though its popularity has plunged in recent years. Abbas has failed to regain control of Gaza and or move closer toward his goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state.
Further hurting Abbas’s standing, the Palestinian leader slashed the salaries of thousands of Palestinian Authority civil servants in Gaza. The step, meant to put additional pressure on the cash-strapped Hamas government to provide for its people, backfired and provoked anger toward Abbas.
Hilles promised to work on restoring the full payments to the workers. “We are one movement and one people,” he said.
On Tuesday, thousands of Fatah supporters who are loyal to Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah strongman who is now a rival of Abbas while living in exile, organized a similar rally in the middle of the city.
Despite the challenges, the participants said they hope Hamas will allow them to mark the anniversary every year.
“We came here to tell everybody that Fatah is still well,” said Mohammed al-Raqagh, a supporter draping the Palestinian flag around his body.
No Palestinian elections have been held since 2006, apart from local polls. Abbas has recently pushed for a vote. Hamas called for a presidential decree setting the election date, but Abbas said he wants Israel to first guarantee that the vote can take place in East Jerusalem.
“We will not accept elections without Jerusalem and without our people… Jerusalem is the capital of our state and it is not up for sale or negotiation,” Abbas said in a speech aired at the Gaza rally.
Established by Yasser Arafat in 1965, Fatah led the armed struggle against Israel for decades as the main component of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO recognized Israel in the early 1990s at the start of the peace process, and since then it has been officially committed to a two-state solution.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Palestinians marched through the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday to mark the 55th anniversary of the Fatah movement.
Around a dozen masked men led the march through Ramallah, firing several rounds of gunfire into the air. Some wore what appeared to be fake suicide vests, referring to the organization’s past terror activities against Israelis.
On Wednesday, another Fatah rally was held in Bethlehem, including posters with pictures of Marwan Barghouti, thought to be a popular Abbas rival within Fatah. Supporters also lofted pictures of Dalal Mughrabi, a Palestinian terrorist who took part in a 1978 terror attack in which 38 Israelis were killed.