AgenciesLeaders of rival Palestinian factions displayed rare unity on Saturday as they marked their “day of catastrophe” or Nakba at a rally in Gaza, raising hopes of reconciliation between the two bitter rival parties.
It was the first time leaders from Islamist Hamas and the more secular Fateh movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had shared the platform at a large public gathering since Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from Fateh in a 2007 civil war.
Palestinians mark “nakba day” on May 15, the day in 1948 when more than 760,000 Palestinians – estimated today to number 4.7 million with their descendants – were pushed into exile or driven out of their homes in the conflict that followed Israel’s creation 62 years ago.
Speaking outside Gaza’s UN headquarters, where the march ended, Hamas official Ismail Radwan said “the right of return is sacred”.
Meanwhile, Fateh official Zakaria Agha said a letter from all the Palestinian movements to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had been presented at the UN office.
It asked him to “act as soon as possible to lift the injustice against the Palestinian people”.
The rally, which was organised by the much smaller Islamic Jihad group to commemorate the Nakba’s 62nd anniversary, coincided with reports of serious talks between Hamas and Fateh to find ways to resolve their differences, Reuters reported.
Top Palestinian businessman Munib Masri, who has been heavily involved in recent mediation efforts, expressed cautious optimism. He told Reuters that “the coming days may result in a positive outcome but we should not expect too much”.
Masri has been mediating between the two groups’ leaders in the Palestinian territories and in exile and has enlisted the support of Arab diplomats to help narrow the differences. Over two years of Egyptian mediation efforts have so far failed.
Masri’s efforts have led to a phone discussion between senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar and Fateh official Azzam Al Ahmed that has been well publicised among Palestinians.
Zahar told Reuters that if discussions with Fateh were successful, the two sides would bring a joint proposal to Egyptian officials who are leading talks, saying that “reconciliation has become an urgent necessity”.
Agha said the unity shown at the rally was “the start of a process to achieve reconciliation”.
Hamas, which calls for the Jewish state’s destruction and refuses to recognise agreements Fateh signed with Israel, has been locked in a power struggle with formerly dominant Fateh movement since it won a 2006 Palestinian election.
Iranian-backed Hamas scorns Abbas for his recognition of Israel and his declared readiness to renounce armed struggle.
Palestinian residents in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have said the enmity between Hamas and Fateh following the 2007 Gaza standoff has wrecked the social fabric of Palestinian society and has undermined peacemaking with Israel.
The two groups continue to carry out arrests of activists affiliated with their rivals in Gaza where Hamas rules, and in the West Bank where Fateh holds sway.
In the West Bank, sirens wailed through the Israeli-occupied territory as residents marked a minute’s silence.
On Friday, protests were staged in Hamas-ruled Gaza and in Lebanon, home to about 400,000 Palestinian refugees, as chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat blasted Israel for its “disregard of international law”.
Some 3,000 people demonstrated in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp in a protest organised by the Hamas movement, and a similar number joined a demonstration in the Nuseirat camp staged by the Islamic Jihad group.
“We will never give up the right of return” of refugees to their towns and villages, a Hamas leader, Muin Mderes, told the crowd in Jabaliya. He also called for the “resistance to unite” against Israel.
Israeli governments have refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return to homes they fled in 1948 over fears a massive return would threaten the state of Israel and its 5.7 million Jewish population.
In a sign of the tensions that have gripped both sides, Israeli troops on Saturday shot dead an elderly farmer and wounded another Palestinian near Gaza’s northern border with Israel, Agence France-Presse reported.
Fuad Abu Matar, 75, died after being “hit with several bullets fired by Israeli occupation soldiers”, Muawia Hassanein, head of the Gaza Strip’s emergency services, told AFP.
An army spokesman told AFP soldiers had detected a man approaching the security barrier near the Nahal Oz road crossing and opened fire after warning shots.
On Friday, an Israeli settler, whose car had been stoned, shot dead a 16-year-old Palestinian youth in the West Bank and hours later the army said Palestinian gunmen raked a car with gunfire wounding two Israelis.