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Hamas celebrates 23rd anniversary with mass rally

Huge crowds of flag-waving Hamas supporters clogged the streets of Gaza City on Tuesday and cars and buildings were adorned with the militant movement's trademark green as tens of thousands turned out to mark the 23rd anniversary of the group's founding.

world Updated: Dec 14, 2010 23:33 IST

Huge crowds of flag-waving Hamas supporters clogged the streets of Gaza City on Tuesday and cars and buildings were adorned with the militant movement's trademark green as tens of thousands turned out to mark the 23rd anniversary of the group's founding.

The turnout appeared to be at least on par with previous years for an event billed by Gaza's rulers as a referendum on their popularity. Hamas claimed it was a record crowd.

At the mass rally, Hamas leaders lauded the group's history of fighting Israel and dismissed claims, including by some pollsters, that it has been losing ground since seizing Gaza by force more than three years ago.

"Hamas has not failed, Hamas has not collapsed," Prime Minster Ismail Haniyeh told the crowd. "Hamas did not fail to bring together government and resistance."

Hamas has often been torn between its roots as a militant group seeking to destroy Israel and a local government responsible for providing services to 1.5 million Gazans.

While sticking to its militant rhetoric, the Hamas has largely observed an informal truce since a bruising Israeli offensive two years ago, forgoing attacks that could spur Israel to strike back or tighten its blockade. Any Israel response could make life harder for Gazans. Some 30 percent of residents are unemployed and many more rely on food aid.

Hamas' message still resonates with many in this crowded and conservative Muslim society.

Gaza teacher Jamila Hatab, 48, brought two sons and five granddaughters to Tuesday's rally.

"I trust Hamas because they are the only people on earth who still say no to America and to Israel," she said. But support for Hamas is difficult to gauge because Gazans fear repercussions if they speak freely. Hamas' control over the Palestinian coastal strip remains unchallenged, but some analysts detect growing impatience with Gaza's isolation and Hamas' moves to impose strict Islamic mores and stifle dissent.

Other, smaller militant groups criticize it for limiting attacks on Israel.

Hamas official Osama Muzini called the rally a referendum on Hamas' popularity.

"All people who came to the streets came to say yes to Hamas and to its model of government and resistance," he said. The rally's turnout is closely watched every year, and Hamas worked hard to ensure an impressive crowd.

From the early morning, mosque loudspeakers blared calls to attend, and hundreds of buses and vans shuttled supporters from all over Gaza to a huge, sandy lot in Gaza City awash in green, Hamas' trademark color which also represents Islam.

A 100-yard (meter) long stage recalled the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, and the rally's speakers stood in front of a 3D model of Jerusalem's gold-capped Dome of the Rock.

In a message distributed to media on Tuesday morning, Hamas said it remains committed to destroying Israel, bringing back Palestinian refugees and seizing control of Jerusalem's holy sites. "Anyone who gives up these rights is a traitor," it said that an apparent dig at Hamas' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who favors a peace agreement with Israel.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas in 2007, leaving his Western-backed Palestinian Authority governing only in the West Bank. Repeated efforts to reconcile the two Palestinian factions have since failed.