Fatah holds big Gaza rally as Hamas watches warily

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Gaza, Nov 12:: More than 100,000 Fatah supporters turned out today at a memorial ceremony for Yasser Arafat, a rare opportunity for the defeated faction in the Gaza Strip to rally under the watchful eyes of Hamas rulers.

A sea of yellow Fatah flags and waves of emotion filled a Gaza square for the biggest assembly Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular faction has held in the territory since Hamas Islamists routed its fighters in violence last June.

''Today we all rise up and one day the Hamas aggressors will be gone,'' said a teenager at the rally who would give his name only as Khaled.

Hamas has banned opposition rallies since its Gaza takeover but any move to prevent a remembrance ceremony for Arafat, the iconic leader who died on Nov. 11, 2004, would have been widely unpopular among Palestinians.

Huge murals of Arafat in his trademark Arab headdress, and a smaller picture of Abbas, provided a backdrop for the event which organisers said was attended by more than 100,000 people.

Fatah nationalist songs blared from loudspeakers as many in the crowd voiced their longing for Arafat, regarded by Palestinians as a symbol of unity.

''Abu Mazen (Abbas) is not like Arafat but he is our president now and we respect him. We urge him to end Hamas occupation,'' Khaled said.

Hamas security forces, some in riot gear, deployed across Gaza City and fired shots in the air at one intersection near the rally after youngsters threw stones at them, witnesses said. There were no reports of injuries.

Hamas erected at least 10 checkpoints on Gaza's main north-south road to inspect vehicles heading to the event, local residents said. Fatah officials said some buses were turned back and passengers then set out on foot, but Hamas denied this.

WAFA news agency, run by Abbas's office, accused Hamas of stealing dozens of pictures of Arafat and 30,000 headdresses symbolising the late leader, that came through an Israeli-run border crossing point earlier in the day.

A pro-Hamas Internet site quoted a Hamas security official as saying trucks carrying yellow Fatah flags and hats were seized ''at a time when the Gaza Strip is being deprived of basic goods and medicine''.

Israel has tightened border restrictions with Gaza since Hamas, which opposes Abbas's peace moves with the Jewish state, came to power in the territory but has pledged humanitarian aid can go through.


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