Hamas rally stirs hope among Palestinians for unity


West Bank

The green banners of Hamas were openly raised at Nablus on the West Bank as thousands gathered for the militant Islamist group's first permitted rally in the West Bank in five years, a sign of a thaw in a bitter split with Fatah, the faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority.

Police observed but did not interfere in the celebration of Hamas's 25th anniversary, which came amid increasing talk of advancing a reconciliation accord that was signed by Hamas and Fatah last year but left unfulfilled despite strong popular demand.

Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since routing Fatah in a brief civil war in June 2007, while Fatah has consolidated its control of the West Bank, dividing Palestinians geographically and politically. The rift has dealt a heavy blow to Palestinian hopes of achieving an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But Hamas asserted victory after an eight-day conflict with Israel last month, and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority spearheaded a successful bid to gain limited statehood recognition at the United Nations. The events gave each faction a boost, generating renewed momentum toward reconciliation.

Both Hamas, which advocates armed attacks on Israel, and Fatah, which favors diplomacy, are saying that their strategies worked.

"Because Hamas believes that they have won the battle of Gaza and we believe that we have won the U.N. vote, you have two winning parties, and when you have two winning parties, they have more ability to compromise," said Muhammad Shtayyeh, a member of Fatah's central committee and an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

"There is a general positive mood for reconciliation," Shtayyeh added, speaking in a telephone interview.

At the Nablus rally, pro-Hamas songs blared from loudspeakers and banners of the group were hung from balconies packed with onlookers after years in which such displays were banned. Women in white head scarves and green Hamas headbands held up models of rockets fired at Israel in the recent conflict as the crowd roared, "God is Great!"

Abdel Nasser Rabi, one of the Hamas supporters, said the gathering was "a beginning" that he hoped would be followed by "more steps toward freedom of expression and national agreement."

Reflecting the renewed spirit of rapprochement, a top Fatah leader in Nablus, Amin Makboul, addressed the rally, calling it a good start on the path to reconciliation.

Nasser al-Din al-Shaer, a Hamas legislator, said the gathering was a sign of Palestinian unity, adding: "Without unity, the Palestinians cannot accomplish the end of the [Israeli] occupation."

Another Hamas rally is planned for Friday in Hebron, in the southern West Bank, and Hamas is reciprocating by allowing Fatah to celebrate its anniversary in Gaza on Jan. 1 after banning such rallies in recent years.

Both Abbas and Hamas' political leader, Khaled Meshal, who visited Gaza last week, have in recent days urged renewed efforts to carry out their reconciliation accord, whose implementation still faces daunting obstacles.

Attempts to form a joint interim government have foundered, and preparations for elections stalled after Hamas stopped the work of registration officials in Gaza, accusing the Palestinian Authority of arresting and restricting registration by Hamas members in the West Bank.

Neither have there been any moves to release prisoners from the factions being held in Gaza and the West Bank.

Several people interviewed at Tuesday's celebration said they had been arrested in the past by the Palestinian Authority and that they were unsure whether the rally would be followed by an easing of the crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank.

Muataz Sbeih, a teacher who said he had been recently reinstated after being fired from his job because of his support for Hamas, said he was skeptical that the rally heralded a change in policy. Allowing the celebration, he said, was a nod to public sentiment after the Gaza war's boosting of Hamas' popularity.

"Time will tell if this is real reconciliation," he said.

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