GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Hamas mobilized tens of thousands of supporters yesterday for an anniversary rally meant to show that the Islamic extremist group has not lost support despite Israel's devastating military assault on Gaza a year ago.
The crowd responded with chants of "We won't recognize Israel" to a fiery speech by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who said the movement scored a "divine victory" against the Jewish state and would not lay down its arms.
Despite the defiant words, Hamas has sharply curtailed rocket fire on Israeli border towns since last winter's Israeli offensive, which inflicted heavy losses on Hamas.
And unlike at last year's rally, Hamas did not taunt Israel over the captive Israeli soldier it is holding, Sgt. Gilad Schalit, whom the extremists hope to trade for hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel. It appears Hamas did not want to spoil prospects of a German-mediated prisoner swap.
Hamas, founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising against Israel, seized Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 and has since tightened its control despite a crippling border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt.
Yesterday's rally illustrated Hamas' firm grip and flair for the theatrical. Gaza was decked out in Islamic green, with Hamas flags fluttering from rooftops, lampposts, and cars, while the yellow banners of Abbas' Fatah movement have all but disappeared.
The crowd packed a large vacant lot where a huge banner draped over the wall of a building showed a picture of Jerusalem's main Islamic shrine and photos of senior Hamas figures. Bands played and scout troops marched in processions. "Gaza is free! Gaza is steadfast!" shouted a male singing troupe, whose members wore military camouflage.
Haniyeh struck a hard line, saying Hamas would not recognize Israel or call off armed struggle "until the Palestinian people achieve freedom and independence."
The United States and Europe, which branded Hamas a terrorist organization after it killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, have said they will shun the group unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.
In recent months, Hamas' leader, Khaled Mashaal, has tried to reach out to the West with conciliatory statements, saying his group supports the idea of a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. However, Mashaal has not said if he would consider that the final arrangement.
Haniyeh suggested that Hamas had not dropped its objective of destroying Israel.
"This movement, with the help of the militant factions liberated the Gaza Strip, and we say, brothers and sisters, we will not be satisfied with Gaza," Haniyeh told the crowd. "Hamas looks toward the whole of Palestine; the liberation of the strip is just a step to liberating all of Palestine," meaning Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza.
Despite the belligerent words, rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza fell sharply in 2009, according to Israel's military. Since the end of the three-week war in mid-January, 242 rockets and mortars were fired, compared with 3,300 in 2008.
Israel's chief rabbi made
a rare visit to a Palestinian village yesterday to condemn the torching of
a mosque allegedly by Jewish extremists, saying the attack brought back memories of the Holocaust.
The visit by Rabbi Yona Metzger to the West Bank village of Yasuf, along with the reference to the emotionally charged issue of the Holocaust, reflected the deep concern caused by the attack Friday.
No arrests have been made. Authorities believe Jewish extremists retaliated for a government-ordered slowdown in settlement construction.
The attackers burned prayer carpets and a book stand with Muslim holy texts, leaving Hebrew graffiti on the floor. Recalling attacks on Jewish holy places by the Nazis, Metzger said religious sites must be left outside political disputes.
"There were hundreds of synagogues," Metzger said. "They took all the holy books out onto the street and burned them.
In the state of Irsrael, we will not allow a Jew to do something like this to Muslims."
- Associated Press