Fatah stages mass rally in Gaza

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

The Fatah party of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has staged a massive rally in the Gaza Strip, the first such gathering in the territory since the Islamist Hamas group took control there in 2007.

The rally is a reflection of the warming ties between the two rival factions.

Throngs camped out overnight in a central Gaza square to ensure themselves a spot for the anniversary commemoration of Fatah’s 1959 founding, and tens of thousands marched carrying Fatah banners.

Top party officials arrived in Gaza for the first time since they were ousted from Gaza by Hamas rivals in 2007, and a recorded speech by Mr Abbas, who rules in the West Bank, was also screened to the crowd.

“There is no substitute for national unity,” he said in the televised address.

Hamas has gained new support among Palestinians following eight days of fighting with Israel in November, in which its militants fired rockets toward the heartland Israeli cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for the first time.

After the fighting, relations have thawed between Hamas and Fatah, and Hamas was allowed to hold its first West Bank rallies since the 2007 split in which Hamas seized Gaza and the secular-leaning Fatah was left in control of the West Bank.

Senior Fatah official Nabil Shaath said the party received a congratulatory message from Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who expressed hope that the two factions could reconcile their differences and work together as joint representatives of the Palestinian people.

“This festival will be like a wedding celebration for Palestine, Jerusalem, the prisoners, the refugees and all the Palestinians,” said Mr Shaath.

Reconciliation between the two factions, however, is still far from coming to fruition. Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, considered more pragmatic than Hamas’ Gaza-based hard-line leaders, forged a reconciliation agreement with Mr Abbas in 2011.

But the Gaza-based leadership, unsupportive of the agreement, has held up implementing it. Also, Fatah enjoys Western support and it has been pressured not to forge a unity deal with the militant Hamas.

Fadwa Taleb, 46, who worked as a police officer during the previous rule of Fatah, gathered at the rally with her family. “We feel like birds freed from our cage today,” Taleb said. “We are happy and feel powerful again.”

In the West Bank, Palestinian President Abbas signed a presidential decree changing the name of the Palestinian Authority to the State of Palestine, following the Palestinians’ upgraded status at the United Nations as a non-member observer state.

According to the decree, reported by the official Palestinian news agency Wafa, all stamps, signs, and official letterhead will be changed to bear the new name.

It is the first concrete, albeit symbolic, step the Palestinians have taken following the November decision by the United Nations. Mr Abbas has hesitated to take more dramatic steps, like filing war crimes indictments against Israel at the International Criminal Court, a tactic that only a recognised state can carry out.

Officials cancelled the event halfway through after 20 people were injured due to overcrowding, and shoving matches erupted between separate Fatah factions.

Yahiya Rabah, a top Fatah official in Gaza, said the rally was cancelled “due to the huge number of participants and logistical failures.”

But witnesses said one pushing match was between supporters of Mr Abbas and supporters of Fatah’s former Gaza security commander Mohammed Dahlan, who was expelled from the party because of conflicts with Mr Abbas.

Another Fatah official said the rally was cancelled because hundreds of Dahlan supporters jumped up on the stage and clashed with Abbas supporters.

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