Tens of thousands of Fatah supporters packed Gaza’s main soccer stadium today in a massive show of strength to boost the movement in its increasingly violent struggle against the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Fatah’s strongman in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, was given a hero’s welcome as he entered the stadium. As he began speaking he shooed away the security guards protecting him.
”Let Hamas shoot me,” he said as the crowd erupted in applause. Fatah gunmen fired in the air during his speech.
The gathering was the largest Fatah demonstration in Gaza since 1994, when Yasser Arafat returned triumphantly to Gaza from exile in the framework of a partial peace deal with Israel.
The demonstration came as masked Fatah gunmen released a video of a kidnapped Hamas official, threatening to expand attacks against Hamas if it rejects calls to disband its militia in the Gaza Strip. The video, reminiscent of scenes in Iraq, marked a new tactic in the latest spate of Palestinian factional violence.
Braving cold, rainy weather, the stadium demonstration marked the 42nd anniversary of the founding of Fatah by the late Yasser Arafat, but was meant to send a clear message to Hamas, which has defiantly rejected Fatah’s calls to outlaw the Gaza militia.
At the demonstration, a sea of yellow Fatah flags fluttered in the wind, and dozens of gunmen were among the crowd. Roads in southern Gaza were packed with motorists trying to reach the stadium.
In his fiery speech, Dahlan derided the Hamas militia as ”a gang,” and called Hamas’ deadly assault on the home of a Fatah security commander a “turning point".
“If they think the murderers will not be punished, they are mistaken,” said Dahlan, who wore a black and white kaffiyeh around his neck. “If they attacked one Fatah person, we’ll attack two more.”
Fatah and Hamas have been locked in a bloody struggle for control of the Palestinian government since the Islamic group won parliamentary elections last year. The victory ended four decades of Fatah political domination, though the group still controls the powerful Palestinian presidency.
More than 30 Palestinians have been killed in factional violence since early December. The fighting has been mostly limited to the Gaza Strip, but it has begun to spread to the West Bank in recent days.
Tensions heightened on Saturday after president Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah outlawed Hamas’ so-called Executive Force, its main military unit in Gaza. Hamas responded by saying it would double the size of the force to 12,000 fighters and resist any attempts to disarm it.
In the video, Mahdi al-Khamdali, the deputy mayor of Nablus and a Hamas official, standing in a jacket and tie, was surrounded by masked militants in army jackets.
One of the men read a statement identifying the gunmen as Fatah members. He threatens new attacks against Hamas, but stops short of threatening to kill the politician.
The captors mentioned the Hamas force, threatening attacks on Hamas targets in the West Bank if the Islamic group doesn’t back down. Hamas’ power base is in Gaza, while Fatah is much stronger in the West Bank.
“From this date we announce loudly that we are not going to keep silent in the West Bank about the crimes of this criminal force,” one of the militants said in the video. ”If any crime takes place against one of our people in Gaza, there will be an operation in the West Bank and we will not exclude anybody from this decision.”
In Gaza City, six pro-Hamas militant groups voiced their support for the Executive Force. “We are not going to allow anyone to assault or attack or harm any member of the Executive unit,” Abu Abir, spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, told a news conference.
“We are going to deal with them in the same manner that we deal with the occupation and its collaborators.”