GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians thronged a Gaza City park Saturday to mark the 58th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah party, a rare show of popularity in the heartland of the militant Hamas group, Fatah’s main rival.
The crowds turned Katiba Park into a sea of yellow flags and pictures of Fatah founders and leaders, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessor Yasser Arafat.
Hamas, which took over Gaza after routing pro-Abbas forces in 2007, permitted Fatah to hold the rally. In several past occasions following the 2007 takeover, Hamas had blocked or restricted activities for Fatah.
While polls indicate Fatah is not that popular, the huge turnout could be seen as a rare opportunity to protest Hamas’ heavy-handed rule in Gaza. The Islamic group has exhausted Gazans with heavy taxes amid record levels of unemployment and poverty. The 2.3 million residents live under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade that Israel says is necessary to stop Hamas from stocking up on weapons. Critics say the blockade amounts to collective punishment.
Founded by Arafat and other leaders in 1959, Fatah announced its birth when it launched the first armed attack against Israel from Lebanon on Jan. 1, 1965. In the 1990s, however, Arafat signed a peace deal with Israel and the Palestinian Authority was created to administer Gaza and parts of the occupied West Bank.
The rally comes at a time of division between Palestinians. Fatah and Hamas, the largest Palestinian factions, remain bitter enemies and repeated Arab attempts to reconcile them failed.
Over the years, Hamas has consolidated its control in Gaza and the internationally recognized PA is struggling to govern autonomous areas of the West Bank. Charges of corruption and mismanagement riddle the PA and Abbas is widely seen as an autocrat.