Tens of thousand mark Arafat death anniversary in Gaza

Tens of thousands of Gaza Palestinians have marked the anniversary of the death of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat for the first time since the Islamic Hamas group seized the territory a decade ago.

Amid a brewing reconciliation between Hamas and the Fatah party Mr Arafat founded, Fatah supporters flocked to al-Saraya Square in Gaza City from all over the coastal enclave to commemorate the 13th anniversary of his death.

Participants waved their yellow flag, raised posters of Arafat and donned his trademark kaffiyeh headgear.

Mr Arafat died in 2004 at a hospital in France after two years of an Israeli siege on his West Bank headquarters. Palestinians accuse Israel of poisoning him but offer no proof.

After winning legislative elections in 2006, Hamas forces violently overthrew Fatah in Gaza the following year. The commemoration comes amid improving relationships between Fatah and Hamas, a month after the two rivals signed a deal in Egypt paving the way to end the Palestinian internal divide.

Under the deal, Hamas would cede control of Gaza to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority after a decade of unilateral rule by the Islamic movement.

President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Arafat's successor, told the crowd in a prerecorded speech from his West Bank headquarters: "The accurate implementation of the deal and the full empowering of the government will surely lead to easing the suffering and reviving hope of a better future for all of us."

Earlier this month, Hamas transferred control at Gaza's crossing points with Israel and Egypt to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, implementing the first part of the Egyptian-brokered reconciliation. Talks will continue in Cairo in 10 days to discuss broader issues.

A sticking point has been the arsenal of rockets, attack tunnels and explosives that Hamas and smaller groups in Gaza possess. In his speech, Mr Abbas reiterated his firm stance that he wants "one authority, one law and one legitimate weapon" in Gaza. Hamas vows not to disarm.

In November 2007, months after Hamas took over Gaza following a week of bloody fighting, Fatah organised a rally to mark Mr Arafat's death which ended with clashes between Fatah supporters and armed Hamas forces in which seven civilians were killed.

Saturday's event ended peacefully after two hours of speeches and people swaying to patriotic songs blaring from huge loudspeakers.

Not all participants belonged to Fatah. Some of them came because they missed the sort of unity that prevailed during Mr Arafat's reign.

"Arafat is for all the Palestinians," said one onlooker.


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