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Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah group staged a mass rally in the Gaza Strip on Friday, the largest such gathering since its rival Hamas took over the territory in 2007.
The demonstration marked a further sign of a thaw in relations between the estranged Palestinian factions and was organised under a reciprocal agreement between them that saw Hamas stage demonstrations last month in the West Bank, which is ruled by Fatah.
News agencies reported that Palestinians living outside the capital began gathering in a central Gaza City square overnight, bearing yellow Fatah flags. Estimates of the size of the crowd ranged from tens to hundreds of thousands.
Top Fatah officials came from the West Bank to attend the event, at which Mr Abbas predicted the group’s five-year-old split with Hamas would end. “Soon we will regain our unity,” the Palestinian president told the crowd in a televised speech.
“People are optimistic that there will be a reconciliation,” Muhammed Shtayyeh, a senior adviser to Mr Abbas and a member of Fatah’s central committee, told the Financial Times. “It shows that people in Gaza, the moment they are free to express themselves, are loyal to Abu Mazen and Fatah,” he added, referring to Mr Abbas by his honorific name.
The two largest Palestinian political groups have drawn closer since last November’s war in Gaza, which ended in a ceasefire brokered by President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt. Fatah allowed Hamas to hold rallies last month in the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron.
Mr Abbas will visit Cairo on January 9 as a prelude to a meeting officials hope to hold later this month aimed at uniting the occupied territories’ fractious political groups.
“We are closer to unity,” said Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, a smaller party. “Since Hamas is able to organise its political activities in the West Bank and Fatah can do the same in Gaza, the ground is getting more mature for reconciliation and bringing back democracy.
However, earlier predictions of a lasting truce between the two main Palestinian factions, whose historical differences run deep, have proved premature.
Fatah and Hamas in 2011 signed an Egyptian-brokered unity agreement aimed at paving the way for jointly held elections, but failed to implement it.
Israel, which withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and does not recognise Hamas, worries that it could take over the West Bank as well. President Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Thursday that the group could seize control of the West Bank “any day”.
Analysts said Friday’s gathering attested to the continuing popularity of Fatah in Gaza, whose 1.7m residents have been squeezed by an Israeli economic blockade and Hamas’ strict Islamist rule.
“Having a big crowd take part in such a rally is an indicator of the popularity of Fatah in Gaza, which doesn’t necessarily say anything about the position of President Abbas himself,” said Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer in contemporary Arab and cultural studies at Birzeit University. “It has to do with the growing public criticism of Hamas government in Gaza.”