Hamas gunmen hold victory march

THOUSANDS of masked Hamas gunmen marched in formation at a large victory rally in an empty Jewish settlement yesterday, the Islamic militant group’s latest show of strength since Israel completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

The demonstration came as thousands of Palestinians defied Palestinian and Egyptian security forces and poured across Gaza’s border into Egypt for a second straight day. A senior Israeli defence official harshly criticised the Palestinians’ failure to close the border this week, saying their credibility was at stake.

The border issue and visible Hamas presence pose a serious challenge to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying to assert control in Gaza. With elections approaching in January, Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah faction are locked in an increasingly bitter power struggle and each is trying to use the pullout for political gain.

Abbas, under heavy international pressure to crack down on militants, has urged Hamas to disarm. Hamas has rejected the calls, and one commander said yesterday his group instead planned to build up its arsenal.

“These weapons will only increase in strength. We will increase our production capacity and the purchase of weapons,” said Fathi Hamad, a Hamas commander in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.

Several thousand Hamas masked gunmen walked in formation through the ruins of Neve Dekalim, which weeks ago was the largest Israeli settlement in Gaza. Militants fired machine guns into the air, and Hamas vehicles displaying home-made Qassam rockets and grenade launchers on their roofs drove over an Israeli flag.

Some 10,000 people, many of them waving green Hamas flags or wearing green baseball caps, cheered on the militants, and the group’s senior leadership watched the procession from a makeshift stage. A delegation from Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood, a banned opposition group, joined the celebration.

A Hamas activist, who identified himself as Abu Masab Hamad, warned the Palestinian Authority not to bow to Israeli and international demands to disarm the group. “If it (the Palestinian Authority) gives in we will oppose it. We shall cling to our arms like we cling to our religion.”

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