Hamas allows rival Fatah to mark anniversary in Gaza rally

Tens of thousands of Palestinians have gathered in downtown Gaza City to mark the 55th anniversary of President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Tens of thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in Gaza on Wednesday to mark the 55th anniversary of President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah movement.

The territory’s Hamas rulers permitted the event for the first time in years.

The militant Islamic group Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip by force from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in 2007, allowed Fatah supporters to celebrate on a Gaza City street. They denied their request to organize the event at one of the city’s public squares or parks.

But the crowd was so big that several thousand people made their way to nearby Saraya Square, the site of the last massive anniversary festival that Hamas allowed in January 2013.

The Hamas takeover left the Palestinians divided between two governments, with Hamas controlling Gaza and the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority governing autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“This year is the year of Palestinian unity and Fatah’s unity behind its leader Mahmoud Abbas,” said Ahmed Hilles, the top Fatah official in Gaza.

Fatah sought to portray the large turnout as a reflection of its good standing, though its popularity has plunged in recent years. Abbas failed to regain control of Gaza and or move closer toward his goal of establishing an independent Palestinian state.

Further hurting Abbas' standing, the Palestinian leader slashed the salaries of thousands of Palestinian Authority civil servants in Gaza. The step, meant to put additional pressure on the cash-strapped Hamas government to provide for its people, backfired and provoked anger toward Abbas.

Hilles promised to work on restoring the full payments to the workers. “We are one movement and one people,” he said.

On Tuesday, thousands of Fatah supporters who are loyal to Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah strongman who is now a rival of Abbas while living in exile, organized a similar rally in the middle of the city.

Despite the challenges, the participants said they hope Hamas will allow them to mark the anniversary every year.

“We came here to tell everybody that Fatah is still well,” said Mohammed al-Raqagh, a supporter draping the Palestinian flag around his body.