Thousands of Palestinians attended a rare Hamas rally in the northern West Bank city of Nablus on Thursday, celebrating the group’s “victory” over Israel in Gaza.
The rally is the first time that the West Bank’s ruling Palestinian Authority (PA) — which is dominated by the Fatah faction, Hamas’s bitter rival — has allowed such a gathering since 2007.
It comes as the two movements, which dominate the Palestinian political scene, take tentative steps towards restarting a fraught reconciliation process, which has stalled in the past year.
An AFP correspondent said at least 5,000 people took part in the celebration, which also marked 25 years since the establishment of the Islamist group which rules the Gaza Strip.
Despite an overcast sky, the mood was exuberant, with enthusiastic youths waving the green flag of Hamas as a procession left the city’s Al-Nasser mosque.
“Our message is that Hamas is here, on the ground and in the heart of our people,” Hamas MP Hosni al-Burini told AFP.
Yussef Iqtishaat, a teenager attending the rally with his family, was among those eagerly brandishing the movement’s flag.
“It’s a great day thanks to the victory in Gaza,” he told AFP.
Women wearing headscarves carried banners praising the movement and its armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades. “Jihad is our way,” and The battle (in Gaza) is the road to liberation,” some read.
“We are with Hamas, you are the gun and we are the ammunition,” one banner said.
Some people also carried wooden models of the rockets fired by Hamas and other Gaza groups at Israel during the eight-day conflict last month, in which more than 174 Palestinians and six Israelis died.
Among those speaking at the rally was Amin Maqbul, secretary general of Fatah’s revolutionary council, who saluted the rival movement.
“Hamas has given thousands of martyrs, prisoners and wounded for Palestine,” he said to roars or approval, adding that Fatah head and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas would soon hold reconciliation talks with Hamas’s chief-in-exile.
“There will soon be a meeting in Cairo between Abu Mazen (Abbas) and Khaled Meshaal to complete the reconciliation and this will be a historic day,” he assured the audience.
Speaking to AFP, Hamas lawmaker Hosni al-Burini called on the PA “to intensify its efforts for national unity.”
The rally was a rare opportunity for Hamas to display its support in the West Bank, where the PA has clamped down on the rival group.
The longtime rivalry between the two Palestinian movements boiled over in 2007, a year after Hamas won a surprise victory over Fatah in legislative elections.
Armed members of the two groups battled in Gaza, with Hamas eventually routing Fatah and taking control of the coastal territory, while the PA has continued to rule the West Bank.
Years of mutual suspicion and recrimination followed, with the movements arresting each other’s members.
The two sides signed a reconciliation deal last year in Cairo, pledging to set up an interim consensus government of independents that would pave the way to legislative and presidential elections within 12 months.
But implementation of the deal stalled over the makeup of the interim government, and a February deal signed by Abbas and Meshaal in Doha and intended to overcome outstanding differences was opposed by Hamas members in Gaza.
Both Abbas and Meshaal have said in recent weeks they hope to restart the reconciliation process.