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Hamas Celebrates Anniversary In Gaza; Seen As Test Of Popularity


Young Hamas supporters are surrounded by Hamas and Palestinian flags as they put the last touches on preparations for today's celebrations.

Young Hamas supporters are surrounded by Hamas and Palestinian flags as they put the last touches on preparations for today's celebrations.

(RFE/RL) -- Thousands of Hamas supporters waving green banners gathered in Gaza City today to mark the 22nd anniversary of the founding of the militant Islamist group.

Many of those present were bused in from around the territory to the central Al-Katiba Square. Hamas, which now rules the Gaza Strip, wanted a big crowd to demonstrate that its popularity has not been eclipsed by the Israeli military assault that devastated the area earlier this year.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah delivered a brief speech at the rally, while a Hamas official led the crowd in an oath to continue the fight against Israel.

"I swear in the name of God almighty I will keep fighting for freedom," the oath said.

Clive Jones, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Britain's Leeds University, told RFE/RL he believes Hamas retains popularity despite the privations Gazans have endured because of the Israeli offensive and the subsequent Israeli and Egptian economic blockades.

"It still enjoys overwhelming support, although not total support," Jones says. "Hamas is struggling between, on the one hand, the tension that has always existed between its ideology, and on the other hand the practical difficulties it faces in governing a very confined space in what some people have called a vast open-air prison."

There had been widespread speculation that Hamas would today announce a prisoner swap involving the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who has been held prisoner since June 2006. He would be exchanged for scores, possibly hundreds, of Palestinian prisoners.

Negotiations Not Complete

Within the last 24 hours, however, Hamas officials have played down this possibility, suggesting that negotiations are not complete. RFE/RL asked analyst Jones whether a successful prisoner swap would be likely to have an impact on the blockade.

"I think there would certainly be more Western pressure upon Israel," Jones says. "Many of the Western countries -- and the U.K. is but one example -- have criticized Israel for the continued blockade in Gaza. And certainly Israel would come under more extreme pressure, from the European Union in particular, to ease the blockade itself."

Hamas was founded in 1987 but came to international attention for its hard-line actions during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which started in 2000. It is closely associated with the campaign of bloody suicide bombings in Israel which killed hundreds of Israelis.
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