Islamic Jihad militant wave flags during a rally marking Nakba Day in the central Gaza Strip
Islamic Jihad militant wave flags during a rally marking Nakba Day in the central Gaza Strip on Friday, May 13, 2011. Photo by AP
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Hamas' leader in the Gaza Strip on Sunday affirmed the Islamist movement's hard-line principles in a speech to thousands of Muslim worshippers Sunday, as they commemorated the uprooting of Palestinians during the 1948 Independence Day War.

"Palestinians mark the occasion this year with great hope of bringing to an end the Zionist project in Palestine," Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, told about 10,000 people at a Gaza City mosque.

Haniyeh's apparent call for Israel's destruction comes just weeks after Hamas reconciled with Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after a four-year split. Abbas has been trying to market the Islamic militants to the international community as an acceptable political partner.

Marches commemorating the 1948 events, known in Arabic as nakba (catastrophe), were also planned in the Abbas-ruled West Bank and in Arab towns in Israel.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven out during the fighting more than six decades ago. The dispute over the fate of the refugees and their descendants, now several million people, remains at the core of the Middle East conflict.

Israeli security forces were on high alert Sunday, and the Israeli military sealed the West Bank for a day, barring Palestinians from entering Israel.

Haniyeh launched the Nakba Day events with a dawn sermon at Gaza City's al-Omari Mosque.

"Palestinians have the right to resist Israeli occupation and will one day return to property they lost in 1948," Haniyeh told worshipers. "To achieve our goals in the liberation of our occupied land, we should have one leadership," he added, praising the recent unity deal.

As part of the reconciliation agreement, Hamas and Abbas' Fatah movement are to share power in a transitional government until elections are held next year. The
U.S. and Europe consider Hamas a terrorist group and have said they will only deal with it if it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and honors previous peace commitments made by the Palestinians.

Haniyeh reiterated Sunday that his movement would not recognize Israel at the outset.
However, Hamas leaders are often vague or issue contradictory statements about the group's political aims.

In recent weeks, some in the group have spoken of reconciliation with the West and a halt to armed hostilities with Israel, and even hinted at some sort of political accommodation.

While Israel is not convinced, there are hopes in some Palestinian circles that the Iran-backed group could become a more accepted part of the Middle East diplomatic equation.