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Middle East

Gazans mass for 'victory rally'

Palestinians have congregated in Gaza for a rally feting Hamas' 25th anniversary and performance in its recent conflict with Israel. But underlying the festivities are uncertainties about the Islamist group's future.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza on Saturday for a Hamas rally to celebrate the anniversary of the Islamist group and fete its recent "victory" over Israel.

In a speech to the masses on Saturday, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal vowed never to recognize Israel and said his group would never abandon its claim to territory.

"Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north," he told thousands of supporters at the Al-Qatiba complex to the west of Gaza city. "There will be no concession on an inch of the land."

"We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take."

Meshaal also vowed to free Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, indicating Islamist militants would try to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as a bargaining chip.

Security forces, which had closed off surrounding roads, could also be seen, as well as members of Hamas’ fighting wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigade.

Meshaal, who has not returned to the Palestinian Territories since he left the West Bank 45 years ago, first crossed into Gaza on Friday. He kissed the soil on his arrival before greeting Gaza's prime minister, Ismail Haniya of Hamas. Meshaal was accompanied by his deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk, and a party of other senior officials.

Hamas: strides or stumbles?

The rally on Saturday, and Meshaal's 48-hour visit, is seen as an opportunity to promote the image of a powerful Hamas to Palestinians and the rest of the world following the conflagration between Hamas and Israel which erupted on November 14. The conflict, which has since ended, left 174 Palestinians and six Israelis dead.

The 56-year-old leader is also expected to promote reconciliation between Hamas and its secular rival Fatah, the majority party in the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank.

The relationship between the two groups has been uneasy since 2006, when Islamist Hamas beat Fatah in Palestinian legislative elections. The following year, Hamas took control of Gaza, ending a power-sharing arrangement with Fatah.

There is speculation, however, that Meshaal's Gaza trip marks the conclusion of a secret election for his successor. The leader-in-exile's political position suffered after he was forced to leave his base in Syria in January due to escalating unrest there, though he recently regained some ground by helping to broker the November cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

Broader unease about the position of the Palestinian Territories vis a vis Israel parallels such uncertainty over leadership. At the end of November, the UN voted to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Territories to "nonmember observer status." Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, however, has vowed to plow ahead with controversial plans to build 3,000 settler homes in the West Bank, a move that German Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned him against during talks in Berlin on Thursday.

sej/hc (Reuters, AFP)