Thousands rally for Hamas anniversary
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, making his first ever visit to the Gaza Strip, has vowed never to recognise Israel and said his Islamist group would never abandon its claim to all Israeli territory.
"Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land," he told a sea of supporters at an open-air rally, the highlight of his three-day stay in Gaza.
"We will never recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take."
In an uncompromising speech, Mr Meshaal also vowed to free Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, indicating Islamist militants would try to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as a bargaining chip.
Israel last year released 1,027 Palestinians from its jails in return for the liberation of Gilad Shalit, a conscript soldier who was seized by Palestinian guerrillas in 2006 and hidden for more than five years in Gaza.
Thousands of Palestinian detainees remain in Israel. The Jewish state says many of them are terrorists. Hamas calls them freedom fighters.
"We will not rest until we liberate the prisoners. The way we freed some of the prisoners in the past is the way we will use to free the remaining prisoners," Mr Meshaal said to cheers from the huge crowd that had flocked to see him.
Mr Meshaal was born in the nearby West Bank but has lived most of his life in exile. He entered Gaza 24 hours ago to attend today's rally which marks the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas.
"Huge crowds came to attend today because Hamas achieved a victory in the last war on the Gaza Strip and forced Israel to accept the terms of the Palestinian resistance groups," As'aad Abu Sharkh, a political analyst at Gaza's al-Azhar University, said by phone.
"By this victory Hamas shows its way is successful, the way of armed resistance and not negotiations, which can never bring any victory."
Hamas put the size of today's rally at 500,000 people, saying it was the largest turnout for such an event since the group was founded in 1987.
Members of the rebel Free Army of Syria attended, Hamas said, as did a representative of the Lebanon-based armed Islamic group Hezbollah.
"It doesn't matter who they are, Hamas still stands for violence, bloodshed, extremism and racism," Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry, said yesterday by phone. He said Mashaal's visit "belies the preposterous accusation of a siege on Gaza."
Mr Mashaal has led Hamas's political bureau since 1996. He was born in the West Bank in 1956 and has lived in Kuwait and Jordan, where his involvement with Hamas began.
He was based in Damascus until moving to Qatar this year, and has said he won't seek re-election as the group's political leader.
Israel and Egypt sealed Gaza's borders in June 2007 after Hamas broke off its power-sharing agreement with the Palestinian Authority.
The restrictions have been eased in recent years, and Hamas says further loosening is one of the elements of last month's cease-fire accord.