Defiant Hamas rejects call for elections

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Hamas yesterday uncompromisingly rejected calls for new elections as fresh violence threatened a slide into worsening and potentially bloody conflict between it and the rival Fatah group it ousted in last January's poll.

The Islamist faction staged a formidable display of popular strength at a rally in its Gaza City heartland, while in the West Bank city of Ramallah, hospital officials said at least 32 of its supporters were injured, some critically, when Fatah-dominated security forces fired on demonstrators. There were also exchanges of fire between the two factions in Gaza City, close to the home of Mohammed Dahlan, a prominent Fatah figure accused by a Hamas spokesman yesterday of being behind the gun attack on the convoy of the Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, on Thursday. The attack killed a bodyguard and injured his eldest son, Abed Haniyeh.

Mr Dahlan said the accusations against him were a "lie" and an attempt to cover up Hamas's own failure to pursue the gunmen it knew to be responsible for Monday's murder of a senior intelligence officer's three children.

Mr Haniyeh, whose black Mercedes was driven into the rally under heavy security, told the 30,000-strong crowd that the moral and financial support he secured on his foreign tour ­ which included Iran and Syria ­ had "broken the blockade" imposed by the international and Israeli boycott and given the faction a new "confidence".

Hamas used its 19th anniversary rally in the Yarmouk football stadium to undermine possible plans by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to dissolve the Hamas-led government, call fresh elections or launch a referendum on the compromise document at the heart of the failed coalition talks between the factions. There has been speculation that Mr Abbas will float the ideas in a speech today.

The senior Hamas parliamentarian Khalil Al-Hayya told the rally: "We will not accept a referendum or elections because that is against the determination of the people."

He added that people had come to the rally to "swear they would not recognise Israel"­ one of the international conditions for lifting the boycott.

In a reference to the deployment of armed Fatah forces, including those of Mr Abbas's presidential guard, who fired at Hamas militants at the Rafah terminal on Thursday, Mr Hayya said: "What a war, Mahmoud Abbas, you are launching, first against God, and then against Hamas." But he insisted: "We will not be pushed into a civil war planned by collaborators."

The rally was a highly organised spectacle choreographed with notable professionalism for the benefit of a largely enthusiastic audience. It displayed Hamas's unique fusion of Islam, militarism and political populism with a heavy presence of armed, black-clad members of the Hamas " executive force" and masked men, some carrying rocket-propelled grenades as well as AK47s, in the stadium, on nearby rooftops, and on street corners through much of the city.

One of the highlights of a programme which repeatedly glorified militant operations against Israel came when two members of Hamas's military wing abseiled down a four-storey apartment building overlooking the stadium unfurling a 20-foot-deep portrait of Fatima al Najar, 70, the suicide bomber who blew herself up close to Israeli troops in Beit Hanoun last month. Her voice on her last video was simultaneously relayed through loudspeakers, declaring eternal allegiance to Hamas.

A second banner carried giant portraits of Mr Haniyeh, Khaled Mashaal, the exiled Hamas leader, and a group of prominent Hamas figures assassinated by Israel, led by Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas founder killed in an air strike in 2004.

Between speeches punctuated with Koranic readings and tape-recorded machinegun fire, two male close harmony groups relayed Hamas messages in the idiom of popular Arab music. "Hamas waters our olive trees," one identically beige-suited quintet sang through the amplifiers.

In the most adventurous set, the central Fatah/ Hamas dialogue on strategy was sung ­ with surprising even handedness ­ in counterpoint in a kind of Arabic rock operetta, in which one singer rehearsed a series of frequently aired complaints against Hamas, as represented by another, keffiyeh-clad, singer, before both predictably joined in unison in a hymn to national unity.

But behind the entertainment, Hamas's message that it intends to stay in power for its full four-year term, coupled with what some observers see as the most dangerous conflict within Palestinian politics for a decade, afford a sombre background for the attempts Tony Blair will be making to revitalise the peace process on Monday.

While yesterday's rally was an overt attempt to show that Hamas remains a serious political force, even some opponents recognise that its support ­ while almost certainly reduced ­ has not yet imploded as a result of the international boycott.