Hamas leader vows not to yield ‘an inch of Palestine’ to Israel

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal vowed Gaza's rulers would never give up "an inch of the land" to Israel in an uncompromising speech before tens of thousands of cheering supporters at a triumphalist "victory" rally in Gaza City.

"Palestine is ours, from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land," he told the crowd on his first visit to Gaza. "We will never recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take."

The supporters — many of them wearing Hamas green headbands and carrying Hamas flags — packed the open-air venue in rain and strong winds to celebrate the Islamist organisation's 25th anniversary and what it regards as a victory in last month's eight-day war with Israel.

Among the crowd, which Hamas officials estimated at half a million, were some Fatah supporters, waving their faction's yellow flag. It was one of increasing signs in recent weeks that reconciliation between the two rival factions could become a more realistic prospect in the coming months.

Patriotic songs forecasting the liberation of the whole land of Palestine blared from huge speakers, as children, some dressed in military garb, brandished plastic guns and toy rockets.

Accompanied by Ismail Haniyeh, Gaza's de facto prime minister, Meshaal stepped through a giant model of a Hamas missile on to the stage, which took the form of a map of historic Palestine. Dressed in a dark coat and draped in a Hamas scarf, he repeatedly raised his hands in acknowledgement of the crowd's cheers.

The Hamas leader, on Palestinian soil for the first time in four decades, also pledged to free thousands of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, hinting that militants may attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips.

"We will not rest until we liberate the prisoners. The way we freed some of the prisoners in the past is the way we will use to free the remaining prisoners," Meshaal said to cheers.

Hamas held Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli conscript, for more than five years before releasing him in exchange for 1 027 Palestinian prisoners in October 2011.

'Free Jerusalem inch by inch, stone by stone'

Meshaal congratulated fighters from Hamas and other armed groups who targeted long-range missiles at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, saying: "We don't kill Jews because they are Jews. We kill the Zionists because they are conquerors and we will continue to kill anyone who takes our land and our holy places … We will free Jerusalem inch by inch, stone by stone."

The right of return for Palestinian refugees "is sacred to us and we will not forfeit it", he said. In a list of towns which refugees would reclaim, he included Safed, birthplace of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, in a barbed reference to hints in a recent interview that Abbas was ready to compromise on this emotive issue.

The rally was opened by a masked representative of Hamas's military wing, the Izzudin al-Qassam Brigades, who told the crowd: "We will cut the hand that extends in aggression against our people and leaders." Meshaal's speech, delivered from behind a bank of white flowers, began five hours after the start of the event.

Hamas is in buoyant mood following last month's war with Israel, in which more than 160 Palestinians were killed and around 1 000 injured. Six Israelis also died in the conflict.

The hardline faction, which has ruled Gaza since June 2007 after winning elections 17 months earlier, claims it won a victory despite the destruction of much of its arsenal of weapons, training facilities and offices.

Following a ceasefire deal, Meshaal told a press conference in Cairo: "We have come out of this battle with our heads held high."

Hamas feels that the conflict brought it significant international legitimacy, with a stream of regional political figures heading to Gaza to show solidarity with Palestinians under bombardment.

Officials in Gaza said that around 1 000 visitors from abroad had travelled to the coastal enclave for Saturday's celebration, including delegations from Qatar, Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain and Malaysia, in what was claimed as a further sign of international acceptance.

Some in the crowd spoke of their desire for Palestinian unity. Wheelchair user Taghreed Abu Hatab (40) said: "However hard it was for me to come, I made it. I was waiting for this day for a long time because it represents unity to us. I'm not Hamas, but we are all brothers, and on this day we are begging for unity."

But Ibraheem Lutfy (32) resented Hamas's claim of victory in the recent conflict. "It's not Hamas only that was resisting — all the factions were there," he said. "But Hamas wants to own the victory as if it was the only one resisting." He was not impressed by Meshaal's presence: "I never felt he did something special to me."

On passing through the border with Egypt on Friday, the exiled Hamas leader kissed the ground and wept. Meshaal (56) was born in the West Bank but left with his family at the age of 11 following the 1967 six-day war, in which Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. After surviving an Israeli attempt to assassinate him in 1997, he became leader of Hamas following the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza in 2004.

Until the beginning of this year, Meshaal's headquarters-in-exile was in Damascus. After refusing to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Meshaal now divides his time between Cairo and Doha. He is expected to leave Gaza on Sunday.

The celebration was brought forward by a few days to hold it on the anniversary of the start of the first Palestinian intifada — uprising — in 1997. – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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