With Palestinian Reconciliation in the Air, Hamas to Hold First Public West Bank Rally

Both Fatah and Hamas have forbidden each other from holding celebrations in their respectively controlled territories; Hamas leader Meshal leaves Gaza vowing reconciliation.

Amira Hass
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Amira Hass

Hamas will hold two rallies in the West Bank this week to mark the 25th anniversary of the Islamic movement. The demonstrations on Thursday in Nablus and Friday in Hebron will be Hamas' first public celebration of its establishment since the Palestinian civil war in 2007, in the West Bank.

A member of the Palestinian Reconciliation Committee told reporters that the Palestinian Authority has given Hamas permission to hold the two rallies, and that the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip has announced that it will allow the rival Fatah movement to celebrate its anniversary there on January 1.

Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah in a bloody coup in June 2007, has not allowed the rival movement to hold public celebrations since 2008.

A Hamas member in Nablus told Haaretz that the Islamic movement does not generally "ask for a license to hold public events." Palestinian law, which is supposed to cover both Gaza and the West Bank, stipulates that the police must be informed of any public events, so as to allow it to maintain order, but permission does not need to be requested.

Both the governments in Ramallah and in Gaza have violated this law by forbidding their political rivals in the respective territories from holding public events.

Announcement of the change in policy comes within the atmosphere of reconciliation the two groups are trying to create. For instance, Hamas leaders Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniyeh visited former Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat's sister on Sunday, and were photographed holding her hands warmly.

Despite these declarations, however, Hamas prisoners in the West Bank and Fatah prisoners in the Gaza Strip have still not been released. Both movements see the release of prisoners as the first real test of their leaders' desire for reconciliation.

Meshal ends first visit to Gaza

Hamas political leader Meshal, who lives in exile in Damascus, ended his first visit to the Gaza Strip on Monday with a pledge his Islamist movement would strive to heal political rifts with Palestinian rivals who hold sway in the West Bank.

His comments reinforced promises he and Abbas made to each other in a telephone conversation a month ago, to forge ahead with a stalled unity deal opposed by Israel.

During his four-day stay in Gaza, Meshal had further angered Israel with vows to never recognize Israel and seek to "free the land of Palestine inch by inch", which Israel said it saw as vindicating its reluctance to yield land for peace.

But in brief remarks before crossing back to Egypt from Gaza, Meshal focused on internal Palestinian feuds.

"I entered Gaza carrying a great love for it and I exit with a greater love in my heart," the 56-year-old Hamas leader.

"From Gaza I have stressed the need for reconciliation, and I do so again. Gaza and the West Bank are two dear parts of the greater Palestinian homeland, and they need each other."

Hamas has ruled the tiny Gaza Strip and its 1.7 million population since 2007, when it won a brief civil war with its secular rivals Fatah, which still controls the West Bank. Israel pulled troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005.

The two main Palestinian factions have tried, often with little enthusiasm, to patch up their differences. Meshal has vowed to push for the unity which is longed for by ordinary Palestinians.

Aside from their quarrel over Gaza, the two Palestinian factions are also divided over Abbas' peacemaking efforts with Israel, which Hamas opposes. But the talks with Israel have been frozen for two years, making it easier to sidestep that issue in order to reconcile.

Both parties also now hope to boost ties on the heels of an eight-day war with Israel last month that ended with a truce Hamas saw as a victory, and a Fatah-led initiative at the United Nations General Assembly, recognizing Palestinian statehood.

Meshal became Hamas' chief leader in 2004 after Israel assassinated the group's co-founders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel-Aziz al-Rantissi. He himself had survived a 1997 Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan.

Hamas' 1988 founding charter calls for the destruction of Israel and creation of a state in all of the area once covered by a British mandate to rule Palestine, before the creation of Israel in 1948.

Some Hamas leaders have suggested they would back a long-term truce with Israel along with the creation of a Palestinian state in the land Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Meshal, though, took a hardline approach in his Gaza visit.

"Today it is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa," he told a rally on Saturda .yRamallah is in the West Bank, while Haifa and Jaffa are a part of Israel, though with sizeable Arab populations.

On Sunday, he told an audience at the Gaza Islamic University: "We do not accept the two-state solution," or Palestinian statehood alongside Israel.

Any push for Palestinian reconciliation would likely further anger Israel, already incensed at Meshal's combative statementsin Gaza.

Netanyahu said on Sunday Meshal's statements in Gaza and Abbas' lack of condemnation showed the Palestinians "have no intention of compromising with us. They want to destroy our country."

Hamas chief Khaled Meshal in Gaza City in December 2012 - launched to Palestinian stardom after Israeli assassination attempt.Credit: Reuters

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