Abbas’ Fatah holds anniversary rally in Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip

Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement turned out for an anniversary rally in the Gaza Strip. It is the first such celebration that Hamas officials in Gaza have allowed since the two factions split nearly six years ago.  

It was a sea of yellow in the streets of Gaza City, as thousands upon thousands of Palestinian supporters of Fatah came out to mark the organization’s 48th anniversary. And, for the first time in more than half a decade, were allowed to display that support publicly.

Fatah’s yellow flags are a rarity in Gaza nowadays. Its activities in the Hamas-controlled coastal strip have been banned since 2007, following a violent split between the two factions. Even the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – who is also the head of the secularist Fatah – hasn’t been to visit since. Despite various promises to do so, Fatah officials insist that his security cannot be guaranteed.

Abbas’ presence was noticeably missing from the crowd in Gaza, despite the myriad of posters featuring him and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, the late founder and leader of Fatah. Abbas instead addressed the crowd via a pre-recorded message.

God-willing, we’ll meet you in Gaza very soon, in a strong Gaza…. Soon, we will regain our unity.

Earlier in the week, Abbas lead a similar event in Ramallah, where Hamas’ green flags have similarly been banned for the last several years. Still, last month, Hamas’ supporters were allowed to mark their party’s anniversary there – a quid pro quo that was not lost on Fatah supporters in Gaza. One Fatah supporter who came out to the demonstration called the rally a “big national celebration – Fatah giving Hamas the opportunity to celebrate in the West Bank and Fatah getting the opportunity to celebrate in Gaza. This is the start of a new era for reconciliation.”

Hamas authorities estimated Friday’s turnout to be around 200,000 people, while organizers from Fatah put that number closer to half a million. It was unclear even a week ago whether Fatah’s Gaza celebrations would happen at all. Hamas had rejected Fatah’s request to hold the rally in the same square where Hamas held its celebration, citing security reasons. Fatah supporters suspected Hamas leaders feared a large turnout, and a public display of support for Fatah in the Gaza Strip.

The celebrations may bring the Palestinians one step closer to reconciliation, but it is unclear how much closer it will bring them to their final goal: an independent state. Fatah has established relations – and off-and-on negotiations – with Israel. Hamas does not, and still believes armed resistance is the best approach to liberation. But among polled Palestinians, Islamist Hamas appears to be more popular, which could further complicate a peace deal with Israel. On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority.

Zakaria Agha, Fatah’s top official in Gaza, insists the rally shows Israel and Hamas that his party is still a player.

To our enemies, we say: this is the people of Palestine. This is the people who you thought were finished. This is Fatah, that everyone thought was was getting old.

Indeed, an aging Fatah guard has been heavily criticized. Hamas officials have made known their preference for younger Fatah leaders, many of whom are sitting in Israeli jails. Meanwhile, Abbas and the so-called old guard have done little to get them out. Some say that that very division, disguised amid talks of unity and celebrations, is the real setback.