HUNDREDS of thousands of supporters of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party on Friday held their first mass rally in Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007.
Hamas, in a sign of reconciliation with Fatah, permitted the rally to go ahead as the climax of a week of Gaza festivities celebrating the 48th anniversary of Fatah taking up arms against Israel.
Demonstrators waved Palestinian and Fatah flags and carried pictures of Abbas.
‘This crowd is a vote in favour of Abbas’s Palestinian Authority and shows that Fatah is still out in front,’ local Fatah leader Selim al-Zaraei said.
The centrepiece of the event was a short speech by Abbas from his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah, beamed to the Gaza crowd on giant screens.
‘Victory is near and we will meet you in Gaza in the near future,’ the Palestinian president said.
‘Gaza was the first Palestinian territory rid of Israeli occupation and settlement and we want a lifting of the blockade so that it can be free and linked to the rest of the nation.’
Fatah Gaza spokesman Fayez Abou Eita said ahead of the speech: ‘Hundreds of thousands of people are currently taking part in the public festivities.’
Hamas congratulated Fatah on the anniversary in a statement, saying it considered it a ‘celebration of national unity and a success for Hamas as well as Fatah’.
‘This positive atmosphere is a step on the road to restoring national unity,’ it said.
Abbas’s address was to be followed by a speech by senior Fatah official Nabil Sha’ath, who travelled to Gaza from the West Bank for the event.
He was to be followed by Hamas official Rawhi Mushtaha, who was to speak in the name of all the Palestinian factions.
Several thousand supporters gathered at the beginning of the festivities on Monday night at the Saraya complex in Gaza City, holding pictures of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Abbas, and waving Fatah flags as fireworks went off.
Similar events took place across the Gaza Strip.
Hamas and Fatah had been at loggerheads since the Islamist movement gained control of Gaza in June 2007, following its victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections the previous year.
But under Egyptian mediation, the two groups reached a unity agreement in April 2011, although it has so far not been implemented.
The anniversary commemorates the first operation against Israel claimed by Fatah’s armed wing, then known as Al-Assifa (‘The Thunderstorm’ in Arabic), on January 1, 1965.
Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organisation, and is opposed to it moving closer to Fatah.
l Meanwhile the Hezbollah chief, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, rejected on Thursday 3 January a suggestion that the Lebanese-Syrian border be closed due to the state’s inability to support the burden of refugees pouring in from the war-torn country.
He said during a televised speech marking 40 days after Ashura: ‘The border with Syria should not be shut and the refugees, regardless if they support or oppose the Syrian regime, should be hosted in Lebanon.’
He warned that Syria and the entire region is facing a threat of division along sectarian, religious, and ethnic lines.
‘We fundamentally and ideologically reject any form of partition or division of any Arab or Islamic country and call for them to preserve their unity,’ he stated.
‘From Yemen to Iraq to Syria, the region is threatened more than ever by partition, even in Egypt and Libya and Saudi Arabia,’ Nasrallah declared.
‘We in Lebanon and in the region are living through one of the most important and dangerous phases, an atmosphere of strife,’ he added.
‘The Lebanese must commit to the unity of their nation, land, people, and institutions,’ he stressed.
On Lebanon’s handling of the Syrian crisis, he noted that various political powers have differences on how to tackle the issue, but they are in agreement over avoiding the spread of the unrest to Lebanon.
Other powers, however, seek to spread the unrest to Lebanon through creating sectarian tensions in order to spark violence in the country, he noted.
Nasrallah praised the government for preventing the spread of the instability in Syria to Lebanon, indirectly noting that had the March 14 camp ‘been in power, then the country would indeed have been linked to the unrest in Syria.’
‘Hezbollah has long called for calm and against being dragged into any conflict through its commitment to mutual coexistence,’ he remarked.
Commenting on the flow of refugees from Syria to Lebanon, Nasrallah said: ‘This issue should be tackled from a purely humanitarian perspective and not be linked to political affairs.’
‘The border with Syria should not be shut for any reason,’ he stressed.
‘The real solution to the flow of refugees does not lie in closing the border, but in working on reaching a political solution in Syria that would help halt the bloodshed,’ he declared.
‘Those responsible for the ongoing flood of refugees are the sides preventing this solution, whether from within Syria or on the regional and international scenes,’ explained the Hezbollah leader.
In addition, Nasrallah called on the Lebanese government to ‘develop’ its political position on Syria in a manner that does not contradict its policy of disassociation.
‘Lebanon should explain to the United States, European powers, Arab League, and United Nations that it can no longer support the humanitarian and social burden of the refugees,’ he said.
‘Lebanon must also push for a political solution in Syria along with other concerned states,’ he stressed.
Addressing the case of abducted Lebanese pilgrims held in Syria, he remarked: ‘It has become evident that some sides are exploiting this issue for political purposes.’
Various local and regional efforts have failed in resolving this issue, he noted.
He therefore called on the state to hold direct negotiations with the abductors in Syria’s A’zaz region.
Moreover, he said that the government must also exert pressure on the countries that wield influence in this file, accusing Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar of funding and arming the armed groups in Syria.
‘Nasrallah urged the state to either exert more efforts to end the plight of the pilgrims or acknowledge its failure.
‘Once it acknowledges its failure, then we will see how we can tackle this issue,’ he stressed.
l In Iraq thousands of Sunni Muslims demonstrated in Baghdad on Friday, in the latest of nearly two weeks of rallies criticising Iraq’s premier and demanding the release of prisoners they say are wrongfully held.
Demonstrators gathered at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the mostly-Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiyah, but were barred by security forces from leaving the compound to rally on the street.
The protesters held up banners calling for a mass prisoner release, stronger human rights provisions in Iraq’s prisons, and a repeal of current anti-terror legislation.