GAZA CITY — A Saturday rally designed to display the Islamic movement's popularity here drew an estimated 20,000 people who roared their approval as speakers vowed to attack Israelis and denounced PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat.
In a muddy soccer field between two impoverished Gaza neighborhoods, a densely packed crowd listened to leaders of Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, urge uncompromising warfare against Israel.
"Welcome to the people who are moving forward at a time when others are moving backward and negotiating and surrendering," said Bassam Hussan Abbadi, one of the first to address the crowd.
As a result of the peace accord that the Palestine Liberation Organization signed with Israel in September, 1993, "all the Palestinian weapons have been silenced, except for the weapons of the Iziddin al-Qassam units," he said, referring to the Hamas militia that has carried out several bloody attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
Hamas has vowed to do anything to torpedo the accord, which established a framework for limited Palestinian self-rule in Gaza and the West Bank.
"They are preventing our soldiers from going to the heart of the enemy," Abbadi complained of the governing Palestinian Authority.
The crowd was passionate but peaceful, and both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority claimed that the rally was a success.
Hamas organizers insisted that 50,000 people turned out, and complained that more had tried to travel by bus from southern Gaza but were turned back at roadblocks thrown up by the Palestinian police. There was no independent confirmation of that claim.
"I see today's rally as a very positive sign," said Sufian Abu Zaidah, a Palestinian official in charge of Israeli affairs.
"Hamas took on an obligation and carried it out," he told Israel Television. "There were no weapons, there was no confrontation with the Palestinian police. These things give us hope that we can talk things out and that Hamas eventually will be part of the Palestinian political picture and not outside it."
Israeli soldiers still stationed in parts of Gaza to guard isolated Jewish settlements had reinforced their positions and braced for possible attacks, but the day passed without incident.
At Netzarim, a joint Israeli-Palestinian checkpoint near a Jewish settlement, busloads of Hamas supporters hurled curses and a few stones out their windows as they passed the junction on their way to and from the rally.
Four Israeli soldiers have been killed at the Netzarim junction this month in two separate attacks by Islamic militants. Also this month, the Israeli part of the checkpoint was overrun and burned twice.
But Israel Television reported that on Saturday, the Palestinian police did not let the buses stop and prevented any confrontation between Israeli troops and Hamas militants.
Saturday's rally was billed as a memorial service for Imad Akil, founder of Iziddin al-Qassam.
Akil, who carried out attacks that Hamas claims killed 11 Israeli soldiers, an Israeli civilian and four suspected Palestinian collaborators, died in a shootout with Israeli soldiers a year ago.
The 23-year-old Akil has since been elevated to the status of martyr. Young men on Saturday wore his picture--showing Akil cradling an automatic weapon as he stood on a painted Star of David--attached to their T-shirts with a paper clip.