The heads of Hamas on Saturday claimed victory for Israel’s impending withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and vowed to continue their armed campaign.
The founders and top political leaders of the militant group made a rare public appearance together. They directly challenged the Palestinian Authority by rejecting President Mahmoud Abbas’s calls to disarm ahead of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements.
Tensions between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have heated up, with each side claiming victory for Israel’s pullout days before the process begins.
Hamas’s top brass sent a message that they have the right to possess weapons and to claim responsibility for pushing Israel out of Gaza.
“The occupation retreat from Gaza Strip and the north of the West Bank is as a result of resistance and our people’s sacrifice,” said senior Hamas figure Ismail Haniyye, as he and his fellow leaders positioned themselves in front of the group’s logo and a green Islamic flag.
“And it is evidence that resistance is able to achieve our national goals.”
The declaration comes one day after the Palestinian Authority held its first official celebration of Israel’s withdrawal.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians crowded Gaza City’s small harbor, waving flags and hearing promises from Abbas that the West Bank and Jerusalem will be next.
“From here, from this place, our nation and our masses are walking toward the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” Abbas told the crowd Friday.
Tensions between the PA and Hamas became apparent when Cabinet minister Mohammed Dahlan said the red, black, green and white Palestinian flag must be the official banner at all celebrations.
He did not refer to Hamas directly, but the group has said it plans its own military-style celebrations, and is sewing thousands of its own green banners.
Inside the Jewish settlements, people were marking their last Sabbath before Israel officially begins its withdrawal next week.
On Sunday at midnight, their presence in the region becomes illegal. And starting Monday, Israeli troops will go from door to door, telling settlers they must leave.
After a two-day grace period, forcible removal is set to begin early Wednesday.
Hundreds of the 8,500 Gaza settlers have already left. They packed their belongings into trucks and have moved into temporary homes in trailer parks in Israel.
Israeli army officials expect that more than 50 percent of all settlers will have left by late Tuesday.
But many settlers have chosen to stay, and they’re joined by thousands of supporters, including activists who have set up tent camps and say they’ll resist removal.
The Bakshis, a family of nine, have refused to pack their belongings and acknowledge that they have to leave.
About 30 guests camped out on Roni Bakshis’ lawn as preparations were made at his home for the ritual Sabbath evening meal on Friday.
“It’s not the last Sabbath. There will be many more Sabbaths,” said Bakshi, who lives in the area’s largest settlement, Neve Dekalim.
“This year, we understand what the destruction of the Temples means, and this year it is greater because Jews are expelling Jews from their homes and jobs,” he told the Associated Press.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suggested in an interview published Friday that Israel could eventually relinquish more West Bank settlements.
Sharon said, however, that Israel would keep major West Bank settlement blocs. “Not everything will be there.
The issue will be raised during the final status talks with the Palestinians,” Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
Sharon said he is convinced the withdrawal from Gaza will benefit Israel in the long run. “I have no regrets,” he said. “Even if I had known the level of (settler) resistance, I would have done it.”
When Sharon decided more than a year ago to withdraw from Gaza — which Israel captured 38 years ago — he reasoned the move would make it easier for Israel to hold on to the major West Bank settlement blocs, where most of the 240,000 settlers live.