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After Latest Israel-Gaza Conflict, Hamas Has Gained Major Political Strength

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Exactly 25 years after the road accident in the Jabalya refugee camp that started the first intifada, the Gaza Strip looked very different than it did in 1987. Hundreds of thousands of people came together to mark the anniversary of the establishment of Hamas, to celebrate the organization's "victory" over Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense and, above all, to see in person the man who has marked his path to the presidency of Palestine some day: Khaled Meshal. Within a quarter of a century, Gaza, which had been under the control of Fatah and the various groups that make up the PLO, has become Hamastan, the first territory to fall to the Muslim brotherhood, Palestine branch.

This was without a doubt the largest rally Hamas has ever held. Masses of people filled Katiba Square in center-city Gaza, before a stage bedecked with a model of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and of the M-75 missile, like those fired at Tel Aviv during the last round of the conflict. In honor of the event, Gaza perfumeries produced a new fragrance called M-75.

It is hard to say clearly who won the last round of fighting. Israel got what it wanted - total silence. But Hamas grew politically stronger as an organization that can survive a battle with Israel. The participation of Fatah in the Hamas celebrations is a sign of how major that political achievement is. But Saturday's event illustrated more than anything else how great Meshal's own political achievement is. Meshal had been poised to leave his position as head of the political wing, and two senior Hamas officials were competing for the post: Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza's Hamas prime minister, and Meshal's deputy, Musa Abu Marzouk, who shared the dais with him Saturday, along with Hamas founder Mahmoud Zahar, of the group's founding generation.

But Meshal will apparently be keeping his job for the next four years, in no small way thanks to Operation Pillar of Defense and the Egyptian-brokered cease-fire he reached with Israel.

Saturday, while he was speaking to the rally in Gaza, reports of his re-election as Hamas political chief were being leaked to Palestinian news websites.

Meshal's speech revealed nothing of the sentimental leader seen Friday entering Gaza at the Rafah crossing and kissing the ground. He broke into tears a number of times, once in Haniyeh's office. But Saturday he was back to the same familiar terrorist-organization leader who pledged yet again that resistance was the only way to overcome the Zionist enemy. He also said, alluding to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, that no Palestinian leader had the right to give up Gaza, the West Bank, Lod or Safed. "Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land," he told the crowds, saying he wanted the Palestinians to have all the territory that makes up modern-day Israel.

"We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take," he told the crowd.

Meshal's greatest message was for internal consumption: He spoke at length about Palestinian unity and said that Fatah was the source of Palestinian authority after it is revamped. "The Palestinian people are one - in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Haifa, in Jaffa, Muslims and Christians will live together and no one will force their will on the other." Reuters contributed to this report.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, right, with Hamas' Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh, speaking to the media.Credit: Reuters

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