Tens of thousands of Fatah supporters rallied in the Hamas stronghold of Gaza on Friday for the first time since they were routed from power in the territory by the Islamist militants in 2007.
The rally, approved by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, marks a renewed attempt by the rival Palestinian factions to show unity following a fierce Hamas battle with Israel in November and Fatah’s subsequent recognition bid at the UN.
However, many obstacles still remain before the sides can settle their differences, chief among them how to deal with Israel. Several rounds of reconciliation talks over recent years centered on finding ways to share power have failed to yield results. Still, both sides expressed optimism following Friday’s unprecedented Fatah show of strength that included hours of waving their yellow flags, dancing in the streets and chanting party slogans. For years, Fatah loyalists in Gaza faced retribution from the Hamas regime, which banned them from gathering.
“We feel like birds freed from our cage today,” said Fadwa Taleb, 46, who worked as a police officer for Fatah before the Hamas takeover and attended Friday’s rally with her family. “We are happy and feel powerful again.”
Top Fatah officials arrived in Gaza for the first time since they were violently ousted. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules the West Bank, did not attend the event, but he addressed the crowd on a large screen telling them “there is no substitute for national unity.”
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh also expressed hope that the two factions could reconcile their differences, sending Fatah a message that he hoped they could work together as joint representatives of the Palestinian people, Fatah official Nabil Shaath said.
Hamas was not directly involved in the event.
Ihab al-Ghussian, the chief spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza, said the sides would “work toward the consolidation of national unity.”
Egyptian officials say a first such meeting in months between the factions is scheduled for next week in Cairo.
After the rally, Haniyeh called Abbas to congratulate him and Abbas in turn thanked Haniyeh for letting it happen, Haniyeh spokesman Taher al-Nunu said. He added that both leaders expressed hope that the cooperation would lead to renewed reconciliation efforts.
The warmer tone is a result of recent gains by both factions.
Abbas has enjoyed a boost in his status since he led the Palestinians’ successful bid to upgrade their status at the UN to a non-member observer state. On Friday, he signed a presidential decree officially changing the name of the Palestinian Authority to the “State of Palestine.” All Palestinian stamps, signs and official letterhead will henceforth be changed to bear the new name, according to the official Palestinian news agency, Wafa.
The move marked the first concrete, albeit symbolic, step the Palestinians have taken following the November decision by the UN. Abbas has hesitated to take more dramatic steps, like filing war crimes indictments against Israel at the International Criminal Court, a tactic that only a recognized state can carry out.
Hamas, meanwhile, has gained new support among Palestinians following eight days of fighting with Israel in November, during which Israel pounded the seaside strip from the air and sea, while Palestinians militants for the first time lobbed rockets toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.