Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered in Gaza on Saturday to commemorate the death of veteran leader Yasser Arafat in the first such memorial in the Hamas-run territory since 2007.
The anniversary event was billed as a show of national unity after the Islamists of Hamas struck a reconciliation agreement last month with the rival Fatah movement founded and led by Arafat until his death in 2004.
The deal, which is supposed to see Hamas cede civil control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority led by current Fatah leader Mahmud Abbas by December 1, could end years of bitter division between the rival factions.
Tens of thousands of people from across the Gaza Strip poured into Saraya Square in Gaza City from early morning, hours before the keynote speeches were due to be delivered.
Organisers said more than 100,000 people were in attendance.
Participants waved Palestinian flags and placards calling for unity, as well as pictures of both Arafat and Abbas.
In a pre-recorded speech broadcast on large screens, Abbas, who has not visited Gaza since his allies were thrown out by Hamas in 2007, hailed his predecessor’s legacy.
“Our Palestinian people, who have always loved you as a great leader, still have that love, respect and loyalty.”
Abbas said the Palestinians were pushing ahead to seal reconciliation and to achieve Arafat’s “dream… for freedom, sovereignty and independence on our Palestinian national soil”.
“There is no state in Gaza and there is no state without Gaza,” he said, stressing that the Palestinian people were “united” and “refuse divisions”.
Gaza is waiting
Participants at the rally also said the event underlined the need, now more than ever, for Palestinians to unite.
“Today is a day for loyalty, unity and reconciliation. We say to the president and the government: Your sons in Fatah are waiting for your support of Gaza,” said 20-year-old Shukri Antar.
Rania Barbekh, 50, who was carrying a Fatah flag and a picture of Abbas, said she and her son had arrived at the square at 7 am from their home in Khan Yunis in the south of the Gaza Strip.
“We are all with Abu Ammar,” she said, referring to Arafat by his Arabic nickname. “From this festival, we want Fatah and Hamas to unite against the enemy.”
Hamas seized control of Gaza in a near civil war with Fatah in 2007 amid bitter recriminations over the Islamists’ landslide victory in parliamentary elections the previous year.
The last commemoration in the territory of Arafat’s death was held just months afterwards and ended in clashes between the rival factions.
Fatah has held other events in Gaza since 2007, including a major celebration in 2013, but Hamas has often suppressed its activities.
On Thursday, several thousand people attended a smaller Arafat anniversary event in Gaza organised by Fatah.
On Friday, hundreds of people took part in a “national unity marathon” organised by the Palestine Athletic Federation to support reconciliation between the rival factions.
Tawfiq Abu Naim, head of Hamas’s internal security forces in Gaza, said he had instructed them to protect and support Saturday’s commemoration, which he described as a “festival of unity”.