Thousands of masked Hamas gunmen marched in formation at a large victory rally in an empty Jewish settlement today, 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 is 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’ 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 today his group instead plans 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.
Earlier today, hundreds of masked Hamas gunmen in military-style fatigues paraded through the abandoned settlement of Netzarim.
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.”
Abbas, meanwhile, was headed to the southern border town of Rafah, where Palestinians have freely crossed into Egypt all week for shopping sprees and family reunions to celebrate the Israeli withdrawal.
Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Tawfiq Abu Khoussa said the flow had slowed to a trickle by this morning. He said police had seized 1,100 pounds of drugs, mostly marijuana, and an unspecified number of weapons.
But late Friday afternoon, thousands of Palestinians broke through Egyptian and Palestinian security lines for a second straight day.
The surge started when Palestinians pelted their own security forces with stones at the Saladin gate, the main informal crossing. When Palestinian security officials gave way, the crowd pushed through the iron gateway and tackled the Egyptian police. Overwhelmed policemen unsuccessfully tried to beat the crowd back with sticks.
Israel fears militant groups will smuggle arms into Gaza, and Israeli and Palestinian officials have both said they fear al Qaida terrorists will infiltrate Gaza.
Amos Gilad, head of the Israeli Defence Ministry’s diplomatic and security department, said weapons had been smuggled across the porous border and the pace was likely to pick up if Palestinians fail to act quickly.
“The Palestinian Authority is facing a supreme test of its credibility,” he told Israel Army Radio.
“They look like they’re running a system which has neither law nor order, neither organisation nor authority.”
Under an agreement with Israel, Egypt has started deploying 750 border troops to secure its side of the frontier and prevent weapons smuggling. But so far, they have failed to halt the flow of people and arms, including hundreds of assault rifles and pistols. Gilad, however, said he believed the Egyptians would act.
“Egypt … has to impose down to the smallest detail a regime of security … to stop smuggling, to stop breaches of its sovereignty. As far as I understand the Egyptians, they are determined to do that,” he said.
Palestinian official Saeb Erekat said the Israelis had caused the problem by not co-ordinating the Gaza pullout with Palestinians.
“Mr.Gilad knows very well that the whole thing was unilateral,” Erekat said. “We had to pick up the pieces after they left without them even telling us when they were going to leave.”
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last year announced a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank as a security measure after several years of fighting. Israel says there can be no peace talks until the Palestinians crack down on militant groups.