Thousands Rally in Gaza, West Bank for 'Unity'

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Agence France Presse

Thousands Rally in Gaza, West Bank for 'Unity'

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Palestinians take part in a rally calling for political unity during a demonstration in Gaza City. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

Thousands of Palestinians rallied in Gaza City and the West Bank on Tuesday in a mass show of strength to call for end to the division in their national movement.

The biggest gathering was in Gaza City, where officials from the Hamas-run interior ministry said vast crowds had packed into the city's Square of the Unknown Soldier.

As the protesters demanded that the rival Hamas and Fatah movements patch up their differences, Gaza's Hamas premier Ismail Haniya publicly invited his Fatah rival, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, for immediate unity talks in Gaza.

"I invite the president, brother Abu Mazen (Abbas), and Fatah to an immediate meeting here in Gaza ... to start national dialogue in order to achieve reconciliation," Haniya said in a live broadcast after an emergency meeting of his government.

And Abbas proposed holding elections "as soon as possible" in order to end the division.

"I am with the people and in favour of going back to the people to put an end to the divisions through presidential and parliamentary elections," he said after talks in Ramallah with Cypriot President Demetris Christofias.

"No to division!" screamed demonstrators in Gaza City under a sea of red, white, black and green Palestinian flags. "Revolution, revolution until we end the division!"

But the Gaza protests were marred by clashes between dozens of Hamas supporters and hundreds of others in which stones were thrown and three people wounded, witnesses and an AFP reporter said.

As more and more people packed into the square, disputes could be seen breaking out, an AFP correspondent said, with Fatah cadres locking horns with Hamas activists who were carrying their own green flags and shouting political slogans.

Also, several thousand left the main square to continue their protests at a nearby site to protest Hamas and other political groups co-opting the movement, one of the organisers said.

The rallies, called by the March 15 protest movement, were planned through Facebook by young activists demanding an end to the rift.

Throughout the day, around 7,000 people demonstrated in the West Bank, with around 3,000 in Ramallah, 2,000 in the northern city of Nablus and similar numbers in Hebron, AFP correspondents said.

"I'm not from Fatah or from Hamas. I came here with my friends to say enough of this division," said a 24-year-old student demonstrating in Nablus, who gave his name only as Sayed.

"We will stay here until the end of the split," he told AFP.

In Ramallah, demonstrators sang patriotic songs and waved Palestinian flags, but the protest was also plagued with confrontations between supporters of different political groups, marring organisers' attempts to keep the movement apolitical.

One student told AFP there would be no unity unless the politicians decided to give up their entrenched positions.

"We as youth should participate in this event to make a big change, but we also can't stop the division if the politicians don't change," said Sama Musa.

The rivalry between Hamas and Fatah dates back to the early 1990s. It soured dramatically after the Islamist movement won elections in 2006 and, a year later, seized control of Gaza after deadly street fighting with Fatah.

Since then, the Palestinian territories have been effectively split in two, with Abbas's rule confined to the West Bank.

In Manara Square, a huge banner was plastered with the faces of dead Palestinians from all the factions, including Yasser Arafat and Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, emblazoned with the slogan: "End the division!"

The March 15 movement was inspired by a wave of uprisings in the Arab world that has brought down the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia and sparked the revolt in Libya and other Arab countries.

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