Hamas flexes muscles in Gaza City rally

RAFAH — Hamas supporters, including thousands of men and vehicles flaunting rockets, filled the streets of Gaza City in an impressive show of strength as Palestinian and Egyptian forces were busy imposing order on their chaotic border crossing.
The Hamas rally on Sunday was a military-style victory parade. Masked men, some carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, others with assault rifles, led the march down a main Gaza boulevard. About a dozen men rappelled down the side of a 10-storey building, unrolling huge green Hamas flags along the way.

Fighters drove cars mounted with rocket launchers, while many of the men fired in the air.

Many of the supporters wore green Hamas hats emblazoned with the slogan: “Gaza … another step to victory.” The Islamic group, which has held several celebrations in recent days, said it drove Israel out with scores of attacks over the past five years. It hopes to parlay its support into victory in January parliamentary elections.

Hamas is fielding candidates for the first time.

Winding up a trip to New York, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said if Hamas does not disarm and cancel its covenant calling to destruction of Israel, “we are not going to provide any support” for the January parliamentary election.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, locked in a crucial power struggle with the Islamic group, has said the withdrawal was a victory for his policy of pursuing negotiations with Israel.

Palestinian officials called on Israel to allow them to open the official border crossing at Rafah — which Israel closed before it pulled out of Gaza last week — and sent teams of technicians to install X-ray machines and lay electrical lines in the closed terminal.

“Preparations are underway in the crossing and God willing, when we reach an agreement, the process will move smoothly,” Abbas said. Controlling the border — and the rest of Gaza — is a key test of Abbas’ abilities.

On Sunday, all the gaps in the 16-kilometre border wall were finally sealed, and 2,000 security personnel fanned out across the border, effectively closing it, said Adnan Barbach, a spokesman for the Palestinian National Security Forces.

The Palestinians were working with Egypt to make sure that the people who had previously scrambled over the border could return home, he said.

“The chaos that existed here is over,” Abbas said after touring the now-quiet border.

Palestinian police were seen patrolling the border road Sunday. With breaches in the border wall sealed, angry Palestinians were forced to turn back, threatening to return with Hamas men and homemade rockets.

Several-hundred people, mostly Egyptians, lined up at the Rafah terminal, where forces checked identifications and allowed people to return home. Palestinians were not allowed to cross into Egypt through the terminal.

On the Egyptian side of the border, hundreds of troops with automatic rifles and armoured vehicles took up positions as well. Under an agreement with Israel, Egypt is deploying 750 border guards to prevent illegal crossing of goods and people across the border. Egyptian officials said the deployment was completed at midday.

Dozens of the guards carrying AK-47 assault rifles took up posts close to the main crossing.

The border remained one of the key issues left unresolved when Israel completed its Gaza withdrawal. The Palestinians wanted to open the Rafah crossing, possibly with the presence of European monitors, to allow people and cargo to move freely into Egypt.

Israel, concerned that factions and advanced weaponry would flow into Gaza, said it wanted traffic redirected through Israeli-controlled crossings. Israeli officials said they would consider allowing the Palestinians to open Rafah — the Gazans’ main outlet to the outside world — if they rein in fighters and establish order.

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