- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The militant group Hamas came out of hiding yesterday to hold a mass press conference, distributing the phone numbers of 34 multilingual spokesmen in a fight for press exposure as Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip this week.

Among Palestinians, the struggle is between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority — both of which take credit for successfully pressuring Israel to evacuate 21 Gaza Strip settlements and four West Bank enclaves.

Determined to win the airwaves, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas yesterday inaugurated a special Gaza-withdrawal press center, complete with live-feed points for TV crews, a 24-hour text messaging service for news updates, maps and free hats and T-shirts.

“The center will facilitate the media in all they need. … A group of Cabinet ministers and officials will be ready at all times to answer your questions,” Mr. Abbas assured reporters and photographers.

In yesterday’s counter-punch, Hamas’ founders and top political leaders gathered on the same stage for the first time in a decade, vowing to go on fighting Israel and claiming victory for the impending withdrawal.

The press conference came two days after another Hamas first — inviting TV cameras to film a nighttime training exercise, complete with militants rappelling down high-rise walls and jumping through flaming hoops.

The group decided to hire spokesmen fluent in Arabic, English and French “to take on the huge responsibility of educating the world about the importance of the withdrawal,” said Mushir Masri, one of the spokesmen.

“The media presence is in high demand especially since the enemy has been defeated and there is no longer a security concern preventing [Hamas] from appearing in public,” Mr. Masri told the Associated Press.

The Hamas leadership went underground after Israel began targeting the group’s highest ranks, including spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, both killed by missile strikes.

Recently Hamas has been openly challenging the Palestinian Authority and even made a strong showing in West Bank and Gaza municipal elections.

At the press conference yesterday, its top leaders said Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, could not be the sole decision-making body and insisted Hamas has the right to possess arms.

The Hamas press conference came just a day after Mr. Abbas attended the first official Palestinian Authority celebration of Israel’s upcoming withdrawal, promising his people that the Gaza pullout is a first step to independence.

At Friday’s Gaza sea-front rally, Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan said all events would take place under the official Palestinian flag.

Hamas is planning its own celebrations and the Hamas flag was prominent at yesterday’s press conference.

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