Palestinians flooded the streets of the Gaza Strip by the tens of thousands Saturday in the biggest show of support for Hamas since the Islamic militants seized the territory in June.
Leader Ismail Haniyeh vowed in speeches on the 20th anniversary of the movement's founding that Hamas will not compromise its hardline views despite growing isolation, poverty and popular support for the rival West Bank government of President Mahmoud Abbas.
Since Hamas wrested control from Abbas' Fatah forces, Gaza's 1.5 million residents have been virtually cut off from the outside world, with Israel and Egypt refusing to fully reopen crossings with the coastal territory. Unemployment has risen to about 50 percent, forcing poverty up to 75 percent, Palestinian officials say.
"The message from you today is that Hamas and these masses will not yield before the sanctions," Haniyeh told the cheering onlookers who waved green Islamic flags at the rally in Gaza City.
The crowd shouted in response, "To you we come, Haniyeh!"
'It is bitter fruits'
Haniyeh lambasted the renewal of peace talks between Israel and Abbas' administration in the United States last month, warning they will not bring about a cessation of Israeli settlement construction on disputed land or yield any other Israeli concessions.
"As for the fruits of the other track, the track of negotiations, normalization and bargaining, all can see that it is the consolidating of settlements ... injustice and oppression for the Palestinian people," Haniyeh said. "It is bitter fruits."
The Hamas leader warned Abbas against conceding in peace talks on the Palestinian demand that refugees who fled past wars with Israel and their descendants be allowed to return to their homes. Their fate is a key sticking point in the talks that are meant to iron out a final peace agreement.
"There is no such thing as a just solution to the right of return," Haniyeh said. "It is the right of every refugee ... to return to the land."
The throngs of Hamas supporters gathered in a sandy lot and along nearby streets. There appeared to be several thousand more people than attended a rally by backers of Hamas' rival, Fatah, who gathered on the same spot in November in what was seen as a major challenge to Hamas. That rally, which an Associated Press reporter estimated at more than 250,000 people, ended in mayhem with Hamas police opening fire and protesters hurling rocks or running for cover. Seven civilians were killed and dozens were wounded in the violence between Palestinian factions.
"This is the real referendum on the popularity of resistance, the people converging behind Hamas," said Zayed Herzallah, a 28-year old merchant, who brought a van full of young relatives Saturday. "Hamas today, after 20 years and after thousands of martyrs, is graduating the fourth generation (of supporters)."
Official: Hamas won't abandon violence
Large pictures of Hamas leaders, both in Gaza and in exile, were draped across the speakers' podium. A black banner hanging from a nearby building read, in Arabic, English and French: "We will not recognize Israel."
In the crowd were dozens of members of the Hamas military wing, among them armed men carrying replicas of homemade Qassam rockets. Some 50 female members of the military wing also marched, dressed in long robes and sporting military-style ammunition vests. Some covered their faces with veils, others with ski masks.
In an anniversary message to Hamas TV, the group's top leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal, said Hamas will not abandon violence.
"This is our real choice, our trump card, which causes the enemy to succumb to us," he said.
He said Abbas does not have the mandate to negotiate with Israel.
"Our people are able to launch a third and fourth uprising until the dawn of victory arrives," he warned.
Official rejects Abbas' negotiation conditions
After the Hamas takeover, Abbas set up a moderate government in the West Bank, winning strong international support and opening the way to the resumption of peace talks with Israel last week.
In his speech, Haniyeh rejected Abbas' conditions for negotiations between the rival movements, including that Hamas give up its power in Gaza.
Hamas was founded in Gaza in December 1987, after the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. It is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt and is seen as the mother of all fundamentalist factions in the Arab Sunni world.
Abbas' government was hoping on Monday at an international conference in Paris to receive pledges toward its goal of raising $5.6 billion over three years to bolster its economy. The United States said Friday it will pledge about $500 million. Donors warned that unless Israel eases physical and administrative obstacles, the money may go to waste.