In show of strength, Hamas supporters flood downtown Gaza

Hamas staged a rally Sunday, with tens of thousands of supporters taking to the streets of downtown Gaza. Though facing economic woes and political pressure from both Israel and Egypt, Hamas' prime minister declared the militant group, 'stronger than you think.'

Suhaib Salem/Reuters
A Palestinian member of Hamas security forces stands guard during a Hamas rally marking the anniversary of the death of its leaders killed by Israel, in Gaza City March 23.

Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters thronged the streets of downtown Gaza City on Sunday, a show of strength at a time when the Islamic militant group faces its deepest crisis since seizing power seven years ago.

Hamas is dealing with a severe financial shortfall, caused by heavy pressure from both Israel and Egypt. But leaders stressed that the group remains opposed to Mideast peace efforts and is ready for battle against Israel at any time.

"The resistance is stronger than you think, and our force has doubled and our arsenal has doubled," Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, told the crowd. "What is hidden from you is bigger than you think."

Hamas staged Sunday's rally to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the death of its spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, in an Israeli airstrike, and the assassinations of other top figures a decade ago. But a series of events in recent days, including Israel's discovery of a tunnel stretching from Gaza into Israel, presumably to carry out militant attacks, and the killing of a top Hamas operative in the West Bank by Israeli forces, gave the rally an extra sense of defiance.

"From under the ground and above the ground, we say it loud: Occupiers go out. You do not have a place to stay on the land of Palestine," Haniyeh said.

Hamas, an armed group committed to the destruction of Israel, took control of Gaza in 2007 after overrunning the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Since then, the Palestinians have been divided between two governments, the Hamas regime in Gaza and Abbas' Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In contrast to Hamas, Abbas favors a negotiated peace agreement with Israel and has been engaged in U.S.-brokered negotiations for the past eight months.

Hamas has fallen onto hard times since its key ally, Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, was ousted in a coup last July. Egypt's new military government has cracked down on a system of smuggling tunnels along the border with Gaza, robbing Hamas of a lifeline that provided consumer goods, weapons and a key source of tax revenue. Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza since 2007, restricting imports and exports and controlling the territory's coastline and airspace.

The dual Israel-Egyptian blockade has plunged Hamas into its worst economic crisis since taking power. The group has struggled to pay its thousands of workers and has begun to face some discontent, even among core supporters.

In another setback for the group, Israel on Friday said it had discovered a new sophisticated tunnel stretching from Gaza into Israel. It was the largest in a series of tunnels Israel has found recently that it says are meant to carry out deadly attacks or kidnappings. On Saturday, Israeli forces in the West Bank killed a top Hamas operative after a standoff in the town of Jenin.

The financial crunch forced Hamas to call off its annual anniversary celebration late last year. Sunday's rally was also scaled back due to budget woes. Unlike past rallies, Hamas did not provide buses to bring in supporters, and it refrained from putting up large displays and decorations.

Even so, the rally was meant to send a message that Hamas remains firmly in control. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets, including schoolchildren in military fatigues and women wearing veils. Waving Hamas flags into the air, the crowd turned downtown Gaza City into a sea of green. Hamas security forces carefully maintained order and diverted traffic from the area.

Hamas battled Israel during eight days of intense fighting in November 2012, firing some 1,500 rockets into Israel before Egypt brokered a truce. Since then, the group has largely refrained from direct confrontation with Israel, though smaller armed groups have continued to fire rockets.

Israel says it holds Hamas responsible for any attacks emanating from the territory. Top leaders of Islamic Jihad, a smaller group responsible for much of the rocket fire, sat in the front row of Sunday's rally.

It was an unusually high profile role for the radical movement in a Hamas event, signaling that Hamas is at the least turning a blind eye to — if not actually supporting — the rocket attacks.

Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas official in Gaza, said Israel should not be fooled by the period of calm.

"We are not interested in an escalation with the occupation," he told Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV station. "However, if they dare to launch aggression on Gaza, our response will be more painful than what we did in 2012."

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