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Crowds in Gaza mark Hamas' anniversary

During a rally marking its 21 years, the group bragged about its violent exploits against Israel.

About 300,000 Hamas backers filled an arena and spilled onto nearby Gaza City streets during yesterday's anniversary rally.
About 300,000 Hamas backers filled an arena and spilled onto nearby Gaza City streets during yesterday's anniversary rally.Read moreHATEM MOUSSA / Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Hamas rulers marshaled hundreds of thousands of supporters to a huge anniversary rally yesterday, a show of muscle featuring a skit of a mock-captive Israeli soldier begging for his freedom.

Marking 21 years since its founding, the Islamic extremist group bragged about its violent exploits, promised more money to Gaza's impoverished people, and announced it would soon stop recognizing the legitimacy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who now rules only the West Bank.

Organizers said that about 300,000 Hamas supporters crowded into a dusty outdoor arena and spilled over into nearby streets. Many waved flags and sported baseball caps in the Islamic group's signature green color.

In the skit, Hamas paraded a Palestinian speaking Hebrew and dressed in an Israeli soldier's uniform - a reference to Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, captured by Hamas-allied gunmen in June 2006.

"I miss my mom and dad," said the man playing the Israeli soldier, kneeling as he spoke. "Tell [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert, why don't you take care of your soldier?"

The capture of Schalit in a June 2006 cross-border raid is an open wound in Israeli society. The taunt at the rally drew condemnation from Israel, which has been indirectly negotiating the soldier's release with Hamas for 21/2 years.

A spokesman for the Israeli government, Mark Regev, called the skit "another example of [Hamas] cruelty and inhumanity."

In comments aired yesterday, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said a six-month truce with Israel would not be renewed after it expires this week. Interviewed on a Hamas-affiliated Lebanese TV channel, Mashaal did not explicitly threaten renewed attacks, saying instead that Hamas would respond to developments.

Yesterday, Israel closed its passenger crossing with Gaza to journalists in response to Palestinian rocket fire over the weekend. For much of the last month, Israel has banned reporters from entering the territory after extremists fired rockets and mortars at Israeli communities.

Hamas, founded in Gaza in late 1987, is sworn to Israel's destruction and was involved in dozens of suicide bombings that killed more than 250 Israelis. It seized Gaza by force in June 2007 after months of fighting with Abbas' Fatah forces.

Hamas contends Abbas' term ends Jan. 8, four years after he was elected president. Abbas has argued that he had an additional year so the presidential term could dovetail with parliament's.

Also yesterday, Israel said a delayed release of 227 Palestinian prisoners would take place today. The release is a goodwill gesture to Abbas' Western-backed government.