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Updated Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 07:01 PM

Exiled Hamas chief at Gaza City rally marking 25th anniversary

By Joel Greenberg
The Washington Post

JERUSALEM — In a speech Saturday before a mammoth rally in Gaza City marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, the political leader of the militant Islamist group, pledged it would never recognize Israel and called for an Islamic Palestinian state on the territory of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mashaal spoke during his first visit to Gaza, a triumphant tour after a recent eight-day war between Hamas and Israel, and 15 years after he survived an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan.

A sea of green flags filled Katiba Square in Gaza City as Mashaal and the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, walked out of a giant replica of a long-range Hamas M75 rocket set up on a stage with a mock-up of the walls of Jerusalem's Old City.

Tens of thousands gathered for what was billed as an anniversary and a victory celebration after last month's conflict, during which Hamas fired rockets toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Mashaal used the occasion to repeat Hamas' long-held principles, calling for "armed resistance" to eliminate Israel.

"Palestine, from the river to the sea, from north to south, is our land," he said. "Not an inch of it can be conceded."

"We cannot recognize the legitimacy of Israel's occupation of Palestine," he added. "There is no legitimacy to occupation, and therefore no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take."

Mashaal, 56, who left the West Bank as a child and now leads Hamas from the Gulf state of Qatar, entered Gaza on Friday via Egypt.

Hamas has received a boost from the political ascension of its parent movement, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, in the wake of last year's Arab Spring revolts — especially in Egypt.

The recent recognition of Palestine as a nonmember observer state at the United Nations was a "small step, but a good one," Mashaal said, but he asserted that armed action took precedence over diplomacy.

"Liberation first, then the state," he said. "The real state is the product of liberation, not the product of negotiations."

Israel, the U.S. and European Union list Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Mashaal's message was in stark contrast to the strategy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the rival Fatah faction that is dominant in the West Bank. Abbas led the successful U.N. bid, has negotiated with Israel and rejects violence.

Still, Mashaal urged Abbas to follow through with a reconciliation agreement signed last year between Hamas and Fatah, calling the U.N. vote a boost to faltering unity efforts.

Mashaal also alluded to the rupture in relations between Hamas and its longtime patron, Syria, caused by the group's support for the uprising against the government of President Bashar Assad.

"Hamas does not support the policy of any state or regime that wages a bloody campaign against its people," he said.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Khaled Mashaal, 56, left the West Bank as a child and now leads Hamas from Qatar. Mashaal waves Saturday to Palestinian Hamas supporters during a rally in Gaza City.


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