Jodi Rudoren
The New York Times
December 13, 2012 - 1:00am

NABLUS, West Bank — Hundreds of men and boys sporting the signature green of the militant Hamas faction marched through the narrow alleys of the old city here on Thursday afternoon, calling for Palestinian unity but also renewed attacks on Israeli cities, in the first public demonstration by the Islamist party allowed in the West Bank in years.

“Qassam, repeat it, Tel Aviv, destroy it,” they chanted, invoking the name of the armed wing of Hamas, as they wound through the ancient marketplace, wearing and waving green flags and carrying children on their shoulders. “Qassam, repeat it, hit Haifa this time.”

The rally, to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, was billed as a step toward reconciliation with the rival Fatah faction that rules the West Bank. The two have been fiercely divided since 2007, after Hamas’s violent ouster of the Palestinian Authority from Gaza, and ever since Hamas activities have been all but banned in the West bank and the party’s leaders routinely harassed or imprisoned. Thursday’s crowd was mainly students and other young men, many of whom had never before attended a Hamas rally; those from the elder generation were ebullient at being able to show their colors again.

“I’m happy to see Hamas flags being raised,” said Radwan Abu Muhamed, 58, who said he had been a member of Hamas since its founding in 1987 and of its precursor, the Muslim Brotherhood, since 1981. “But I want to see other flags being raised also because I believe Palestine is bigger than Fatah and Hamas.”

“God willing, it will be a beginning of a new era,” Mr. Muhamed added. “An era of openness, an era of accepting the other opinion, an era of partnership.”

Such calls for unity have been growing among common citizens and leaders alike since last month’s bloody eight-day conflict between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and United Nations General Assembly vote upgrading the Palestinians’ status to a non-member observer state. Hamas plans more demonstrations throughout the West Bank after noon prayers on Friday, and has given Fatah permission to mark its own anniversary next month in Gaza.

However, the rallies in one another’s territories constitute at most a first step toward reconciliation. Leaders of the two factions have signed no fewer than four unity pacts in recent years but failed to fulfill them. Repeated promises for renewed talks in recent days have also yet to come to fruition, and the ideological differences remain profound.

Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas, said in a defiant speech on Saturday that he would never recognize Israel, calling for a Palestinian state stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and saying the path to liberation was through resistance, not negotiation. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, the leader of Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, has rejected violence and seeks to negotiate with Israel to establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, using the 1967 borders as a guideline.

On Thursday, Mr. Abbas sought to downplay the differences, telling reporters in Turkey that he did not agree with Mr. Meshal’s refusal to recognize Israel, and pointing to a 1993 agreement signed by Fatah and Hamas that “stipulates a two-state vision.” The Turkish media reported that Mr. Abbas and Mr. Meshal had a half-hour phone conversation on Wednesday — they have been speaking frequently since the onset of the Gaza conflict — and that Mr. Abbas said reconciliation talks would resume in Cairo in two weeks.

“Reconciliation, by definition, is a very, very long-term process — it involves a lot of grievances and, unfortunately, blood,” said Husam Zomlot, a Fatah official. “It’s not going to be a single bullet. There will have to be a gradual process of deescalating, normalizing political processes. It doesn’t mean years; it could happen within weeks.”

Mr. Zomlot and other West Bank political leaders said Thursday’s rally was an important step in building unity on the ground. It was not a large demonstration — perhaps 1,000 Hamas supporters gathered after the march in Nablus’s bustling main square, with a similar number of onlookers smiling from the periphery, many leaning out from five levels of the municipal mall’s parking garage. It was peaceful and orderly under crisp sunshine, with no visible presence of Palestinian security officials other than those directing traffic on nearby streets. But elsewhere in the West Bank on Thursday, 90 Palestinians were injured, one critically, and at least six arrested, in a series of clashes with Israeli soldiers in the volatile city of Hebron, where a border policewoman fatally shot a teenager the day before after he brandished a weapon that turned out to be a toy.

Here in Nablus, there were a few Palestinian flags among a sea of Hamas ones. Men tied green bands of cloth around their heads or draped them from their necks, some making flags into capes. In the back, some women in white headscarves held cardboard models of the Iranian-made, long-range Fajr 5 rockets and of the M-75’s Hamas claims to have manufactured, both of which are credited with reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during last month’s fighting.

“March, Hamas, march,” the crowd chanted. “You are the cannon, we are the bullets.”

Adeeb Bani Fadel, a 43-year-old English teacher, said the rally was “a message for the international community,” much of which views Hamas as a terrorist organization, that “Hamas is the majority for the Palestinian people here” and “to sit with Hamas and to listen to Hamas.”

Shaul Mishal, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University who has written two books about Hamas, called Nablus, a city of 130,000, a prime example of where Islamism and Palestinian nationalism are coming together for a younger generation. Hamas won 13 of 15 City Council seats here in 2005, though many of those members later resigned or went to prison. For many, the lasting image of Hamas in Nablus before Thursday was of a 2007 raid on its offices by Fatah’s Al Aksa Brigades.

Rajat Naseef, a spokesman for Hamas in the West Bank, said the party chose Nablus because it is “the heart of the West Bank” and said the rally was “planting a branch of unity.” Among the speakers was Amin Makboul, a Fatah leader, who cited the dual Palestinian “victories” in Gaza and the United Nations, addressed the Hamas crowd as “my brothers,” and said, “Our people are demanding that we achieve unity and end the split.”

The crowd chanted: “Hamas today in Nablus, tomorrow, Fatah in Gaza. Let’s end the chapter of the split.”

Ghassan Shakaa, a former Fatah member who is a member of the P.L.O. executive committee and who was recently elected mayor of Nablus as an independent, attended even though he rejects Hamas’s tactics of violence and sending “missiles to Israel to hurt civilians.”

“They are part of the Palestinian people, it’s their time to celebrate, and I think everyone should join them — why not?” Mr. Shakaa said in an interview beforehand. “My presence is saying yes, I am with you on your day.”


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