Hundreds of thousands of ralliers turned out in Gaza for Hamas' 25th anniversary celebrations. Addressing the crowd, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal vowed to “never recognize Israel” or cede “an inch” of Palestinian land.
Meshaal gave a fiery speech to a huge number of ralliers who braved the rain to attend.
“We will never recognize Israel’s occupation of legitimate Palestinian lands, and we will not recognize Israel,” the Hamas leader told the cheering crowd.
“Palestine is our land from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan, and we will never give away an inch of it,” he added.
Meshaal spoke from a stage decorated with a replica of a rocket Hamas fired into Israel during last month's conflict in Gaza. As he entered the stage alongside Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, the crowd raised their index fingers and chanted:
"We swear by the name of almighty God and his great Prophet to renew our pledge of allegiance and loyalty to Hamas."
Hamas and Palestinian flags waved by the ralliers mixed with Turkish, Indonesian, Algerian and other banners – a sign of the growing international support Hamas began enjoying following the Arab Spring revolts, particularly in Egypt.
Meshaal’s visit is reportedly his first-ever to the strip. The 56-year-old leader left the West Bank as a child, and now directs Hamas from the Gulf state Qatar.
As he crossed into Gazan territory from Egypt's Rafah border, Meshaal reportedly cried and fell to his knees, kisisng the ground after saying a traditional Islamic prayer.
"I consider this moment my third birth, and I pray to God that my fourth birth will be the moment when all of Palestine is liberated," he said about his visit, referencing his survival of an assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997.
Upon arriving, the Hamas chief went to see the remains of the car in which Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari was killed last month by an Israeli airstrike. Jabari's assassination marked the beginning of an eight-day Israeli military operation in Gaza that killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis.
In addition to the rally, Meshaal's visit will also see him attending talks on reconciliation plans between Hamas and its rival Fatah movement. Fatah, which now rules parts of the West Bank, was ousted by Hamas from the strip in a democratic election in 2007.
Fatah agreed to take part in Hamas’ 25th anniversary celebrations in Gaza. “There is no reason why we should not participate with our Hamas brothers in the celebrations,” the Jerusalem Post quoted senior Fatah official Yehya Rabah as saying.
Thousands of masked Hamas fighters – armed with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and anti-aircraft weapons – have been called to protect their leader's convoy.
But Israel, the main threat to the Hamas leader's security, must observe Mershaal's visit without interfering, thanks to the recent truce agreement between Hamas and Tel Aviv that brought an end to the recent Gaza conflict.
The propaganda war between Hamas and Israel remains heated, however. The Israeli Defense Force used the hashtag #HamasCelebrates on its Twitter page for its posts on Hamas terror acts. Each tweet contained information on a specific act, detailing the number of victims and injuries, as well as the date and place.
Hamas was founded in 1987, and is dedicated to the creation of an Islamic state in Palestine. The US, the EU and Israel consider it a terrorist organization.
Sharmine Narwani, a Middle East political analyst and Senior Associate at St. Antony's College, Oxford, believes that by putting a model rocket on the stage for the anniversary celebrations Hamas might be sending two messages:
“One is that all options are back on the table – that Palestinians might resist militarily is a possibility again. The second reason the rocket counts, I think, is that it is a sign that deterrence has been reestablished,” Narwani told RT.
Narwani says Khaled Meshaal ‘s visit to Gaza was made possible by the change in the Egyptian leadership. Hosni Mubarak’s government simply did not allow the leader in exile to enter the strip through the Rafah border crossing, which is controlled by Cairo.
“You have the new Islamic Egyptian government that let him cross into Egypt. There are also more complicated reasons – the geopolitics of the region have shifted a lot since the Arab uprisings,” said Narwani. “For countries like Israel and the US, everything happening in the region today is viewed through the prism of how it helps or harms Iran. And right now it looks like Meshaal is the lesser threat.”