200,000 PALESTINIANS RALLY FOR HAMAS 21st ANNIVERSARY

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Over 200,000 flag-waving Palestinians attended a mass rally in Gaza on Sunday marking the 21st anniversary of the founding of the Hamas movement.

Addressing the crowd, Prime Minister of the Hamas-led government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, vowed once again not to recognise the authority of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after his term expires on January 9th.

He also pledged to compensate Palestinian pilgrims from Gaza who were prevented from going on the Hajj to Mecca due to Hamas’ ongoing conflict with Abbas’ Fatah movement.

Haniya’s speech had been billed as a ‘State of the Gaza Strip’ address.

Haniya also criticised Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip, labelling it a ‘dirty war’ against the civilian population of the Strip.

The Hamas leader hailed the high turnout at the rally as a sign of political support for Hamas in spite of the Israeli blockade and the conflict with Fatah.

The rally was also attended by other senior Hamas leaders, including the acting speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmad Bahar, and Sa’id Siyam, Hamas’ interior minister.

Earlier, Salah Al-Bardawil, the spokesman of the Hamas block in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), told the crowd that PLC speaker Aziz Dweik, who is in prison in Israel, would become president by default when Abbas’ term expires.

Al-Bardawil told the crowd that Dweik would become president ‘in accordance with the Palestinian basic law.’

He explained that Dweik will be president for 60 days, during which time he will prepare for presidential elections.

Al-Bardawil asserted that only the Palestinian basic law can determine who will be the next Palestinian president.

He explained that Arab countries’ foreign ministers advised Hamas last month that Abbas should remain president until agreement is reached, but added that this was advice and not a decision.

The Speaker also made the following assertions about Hamas:

1. Hamas, in Palestine and abroad is united.

2. Hamas is the legitimate government and president Abbas is about to end his tenure.

3. The siege failed to thwart Hamas and its supporters who are steadfast and will never give.

During early speeches Hamas officials boasted about the large numbers of supporters who turned out for the event, calling the show of support a kind of political referendum and a stance against Abbas.

In his speech, Haniya had been expected to address the future of Hamas ceasefire with Israel, which expires December 19th.

Ra’fat Nassif, one of the prominent Hamas political leaders in the West Bank, affirmed that his Movement was confident of winning any elections in the Palestinian lands provided that they are held on legal time.

Nassif, in an interview with ‘Palestine’ newspaper published on Sunday, refuted claims that Hamas was afraid of early elections, explaining that his Movement was only against changing its legal timing.

He underlined that PNA president Mahmoud Abbas’ term in office expires on 9th January 2009 and hence presidential elections should be held accordingly, but, he noted, legislative elections are due in 2010.

Nassif elaborated: ‘When the legal time for the legislative elections are due we will prove to the world that we back the election and we will secure a sweeping victory.’

Elections will prove that the Palestinian people reject those who deviate from the national project and insist on frivolous negotiations that are only a waste of time, the spokesman underlined.

He also said that Hamas would never give up resistance, and denied claims that it had deviated from the path of its historic leaders topped by martyrs Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Dr Abdul Aziz Rantisi.

Hamas champions national cohesion and unity, Nassif said, adding that it had exerted and still is exerting all efforts possible to reach this ‘noble goal’.

The spokesman, who was speaking on the occasion of the 21st anniversary of Hamas’ inception, said that the future is for Hamas, pointing to its daily growth.

Hamas is used to challenges, Nassif said, adding that his Movement had proven it was capable of confronting those challenges and emerging more powerful than ever before.

Meanwhile, before the speech on Sunday, Hamas officials said Haniya would likely demand Israel adhere to the terms of the truce set out six months ago, rather than demand a negotiation for new conditions.

Hamas representative in Lebanon Osama Hamdan said Haniya sees the truce as something agreed on because it is in the Palestinian national interest.

The agreement was broken dozens of times during its six-month span, and many accuse Israel of failing to comply with the terms of the agreement by refusing to open the Gaza Strip’s borders.

According to the terms of the ceasefire Israel would open the Gaza Strip crossing points, allowing in sufficient quantities of fuel, food, goods and building supplies.

The Strip had been under a tight blockade until the ceasefire took effect.

During the six months of the agreement, however, Gaza was not sufficiently supplied.

A UN report released last Thursday noted that only 25 per cent of necessary goods had made it in to the area during the ceasefire.

In October, only 123 trucks per day were permitted into the area, while Gaza officials say between 400 and 600 truckloads a day are necessary to sustain the area.

In October 2007, approximately 425 truckloads per day were transferred into the area.

During the entire month of November crossings were opened just four times.

The power plant was shut down for lack of fuel, and UNRWA had to close its doors for most of the month due to a lack of supplies.

Hamas officials met with leaders of other factions in Gaza in advance of the ceasefire expiration, and reportedly took suggestions and opinions from the parties.

Several factions, including the Islamic Jihad movement, maintained that the ceasefire should end because it served Israeli interests over Palestinian ones.

For Israel’s part, the head of the political-military bureau at the Defence Ministry, Amos Gilad, was expected to fly to Cairo on Sunday morning to meet with Umar Sulaiman, the director of Egyptian intelligence, to discuss the options for the future of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Gilad is expected to ask for Egypt to help broker an extension of the ceasefire in Gaza as well as discuss the case of captured Israeli soldier in Gaza, Gilad Shalit.

The Israeli press reported Sunday that army officials are expecting a ‘tense week’ when the ceasefire officially ends, though they expect conditions to be renewed.

Political sources were quoted as saying that Israel is interested in extending the ceasefire, and will be ready to do their best to keep the calm in Gaza, despite recent declarations by others, including Tzipi Livni, encouraging a widespread military operation.