- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip | Hamas mobilized tens of thousands of supporters on Monday for an anniversary rally meant to show that the Islamic militant group has not lost support, despite Israel’s devastating military assault on Gaza a year ago.

The crowd responded with chants of “We won’t recognize Israel” to a fiery speech by Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, who said the movement scored a “divine victory” against the Jewish state and would not lay down its arms.

Despite the defiant words, Hamas has sharply curtailed rocket fire on Israeli border towns since last winter’s Israeli offensive, which inflicted heavy losses on the militants.

And unlike at last year’s rally, Hamas did not taunt Israel over the captive Israeli soldier it is holding, Sgt. Gilad Shalit, whom the militants hope to trade for hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel. It appears Hamas didn’t want to spoil prospects of a Germany-mediated prisoner swap.

Hamas, founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising against Israel, seized Gaza from Western-backed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 and has since tightened its control despite a crippling border blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt.

Monday’s rally illustrated Hamas’ firm grip and flair for the theatrical.

Gaza was decked out in Islamic green, with Hamas flags fluttering from rooftops, lampposts and cars, while the yellow banners of Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement have all but disappeared.

The crowd packed a large vacant lot where a huge banner draped over the wall of a building showed a picture of Jerusalem’s main Islamic shrine and photos of senior Hamas figures.

Bands played and scout troops marched in processions. “Gaza is free. Gaza is steadfast,” shouted a male singing troupe, whose members wore military camouflage.

Women stood in a separate section, many of them wearing face veils and green baseball hats over head scarves. Some children were dressed in combat fatigues and wore green headbands.

Mr. Haniyeh struck a hard line, saying Hamas would not recognize Israel or call off armed struggle “until the Palestinian people achieve freedom and independence.”

The United States and Europe, which branded Hamas a terrorist organization after it killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, have said they will shun the group unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

In recent months, Hamas’ leader, Khaled Mashaal, has tried to reach out to the West with conciliatory statements, saying his group supports the idea of a Palestinian state in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, Mr. Mashaal hasn’t said whether he would consider that the final arrangement.

Mr. Haniyeh suggested Monday that Hamas hasn’t dropped its objective of destroying Israel.

“Hamas looks toward the whole of Palestine, the liberation of the strip is just a step to liberating all of Palestine,” meaning Israel as well as the West Bank and Gaza, he told the crowd.

Despite the belligerent words, rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza fell sharply this year, according to Israel’s military. Since the end of the three-week war in mid-January, 242 rockets and mortars were fired, compared with 3,300 in 2008.

Israel launched the three-week offensive on Dec. 27 to halt the attacks and subdue Hamas, inflicting heavy losses on the militants and making it harder for them to provide for Gaza’s 1.5 million people.

Hamas has been unable to rebuild homes, sewage lines and water pipes destroyed in the assault because Israel and Egypt continue to enforce a border blockade. Basic goods such as food and some medicines are allowed into Gaza, but construction materials are not.

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