Sunday, December 09, 2012
Gaza crowds tell Meshaal to stay as leader
By Marwa Awad
GAZA (Reuters) - Braving rain, wind and winter chill, thousands upon thousands of Gazans joined a 25th anniversary rally for Hamas on Saturday, making clear they want Khaled Meshaal to remain leader of the Islamist group.
Meshaal, paying his first ever visit to Hamas's Gaza fiefdom, has said repeatedly that he wants to step down after eight years at the helm of the group, which is locked in seemingly perennial conflict with a much more powerful Israel.
He made no mention of his future in an hour-long speech, but the crowds of supporters, many holding aloft the green flag of Hamas, were adamant that the bearded Meshaal should continue to guide the group at a time when they see its star rising.
"Meshaal is the natural leader of Hamas and must stay so if Palestine is going to be liberated," said Salah Suheil, a 44-year-old man standing on waterlogged wasteground that served as the arena for Saturday's celebrations.
Hamas, which has just fought an eight-day conflict with Israel, has been holding a secret ballot for months to determine who should head the group. Expectations that a result would emerge during Meshaal's visit appeared unfounded.
"Hamas has not yet concluded its internal election and there is nothing new in this regard," a senior Hamas source told Reuters on Saturday.
Meshaal emerged through the doors of a huge model missile onto the rally stage, waving his arms and flashing victory signs, as the crowds, catching their first-ever glimpse of their long-exiled leader, roared in approval.
"We all want Meshaal to remain in his post," said Ahmed Shaheen, 60, wearing long Arab robes, who was sitting with his young children near the front of the audience.
Dressed in a suit and a woollen jacket, Meshaal looked more like the school teacher he once was than the head of a movement that is viewed as a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and many Western governments.
Although he has spent most of his adult life far from Palestinian lands, his freedom of movement in the rest of the region has enabled him to build a series of contacts that have solidified his position at the top of the militant organisation.
Once seen in the Syrian and Iranian camp, he has recently worked much more closely with Qatar and Egypt, showing his worth to Hamas when he led negotiations in Cairo last month that resulted in the ceasefire deal with Israel.
The fact Israel decided not to invade Gaza and signalled a willingness to discuss its long-running land and sea blockade of the territory, suggested to locals that Hamas had emerged on top after fighting that killed 170 Palestinians and six Israelis.
"Meshaal's arrival is a gift from God on this holy spot of land after God offered us victory," said Abu Haidar, a university teacher and Hamas activist.
Israel launched its November assault with the stated aim of halting indiscriminate rocket fire into its territory. It said it achieved its goal while inflicting major damage on Hamas.
The fighting now over, the pressure is on Meshaal to reach beyond the bounds of Hamas and strike a unity accord with the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah, which was ousted from Gaza in a 2007 civil war but still governs the West Bank.
"This last war on Gaza proved what Palestinians are capable of, which is fighting to the death, surviving and celebrating the deaths of our martyrs," said engineer Ahmad Gamal Dalu, who lost 10 family members in an Israeli attack on his home.
"I hope that Hamas overcomes its euphoria after the war and agrees to truly work with Fatah and the factions," he added.
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Stephen Powell)
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