GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Tens of thousands of Gazans turned out Wednesday for an anniversary rally of the ruling Hamas, a demonstration of strength for the Islamic militant movement ahead of Palestinian general elections tentatively set for the spring.
The annual rally has become an increasingly elaborate exercise in stagecraft since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 following internal fighting with forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The crowd faced a huge stage in the shape of a ship, meant to symbolize the Palestinian journey of return to all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, including what is now Israel.
A large replica of Jerusalem's Al Aqsa Mosque, built on the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temples, served as a backdrop. "Oh, Jerusalem, we are coming," read one of the banners.
Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, arrived as a band rallied the crowd in a chant of "We will not recognize Israel."
A boy dressed in a Hamas military uniform greeted him, and a young girl in a white dress and green Hamas bandanna handed him a flower and Hamas and Palestinian flags. Speakers blasted chants of "God is the greatest."
Addressing the crowd, Haniyeh called for continued armed struggle against Israel.
"We affirm that armed resistance is our strategic option and the only way to liberate our land, from the sea to the river," he said. "God willing, Hamas will lead the people ... to the uprising until we liberate Palestine, all of Palestine."
Hamas, a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, was established in Gaza in December 1987, shortly after the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. It adopted a militant ideology that called for armed struggle against Israel, with the eventual aim of reclaiming all of historic Palestine.
Hamas grew in popularity over the years, in part because of its social welfare system, and defeated Abbas' Fatah movement in parliament elections in 2006. It has accumulated a large arsenal of rockets, anti-tank missiles and explosives. As part of its anniversary statement, Hamas said its militants have fired more than 11,000 rockets and mortar shells at Israel since 2000, and that the group has killed more than 1,300 Israelis in scores of attacks since its founding.
In the statement, Hamas said it would continue "all forms of resistance against the occupation, until liberation, independence and the return of the Palestinian refugees."
However, Hamas has largely stuck to an informal truce with Israel in recent months, and has tried to prevent other militant groups from firing rockets at Israel from Gaza. Rocket attacks on Israel have dropped sharply since a major Israeli military offensive against Hamas in the winter of 2008-2009.
Hamas organizers said some 350,000 people attended Wednesday's rally. The estimate could not be confirmed independently, but the rally site, a large open area, was packed and an overflow crowd spilled into adjacent streets.
The rally came a week before another round of reconciliation talks between Abbas and Hamas' top leader in exile, Khaled Mashaal.
The leaders said last month that they are ready for better relations, but failed to chart a clear path to new elections, tentatively set for May. Despite the apparent goodwill, gaps remain deep and little progress is expected at next week's talks in Cairo.
Since the takeover in 2007, Hamas has cemented control over Gaza, while a rival government reporting to Abbas has run parts of the West Bank, though Israel retains overall security control there.
On Wednesday, Israeli troops arrested a Hamas lawmaker in the West Bank, Ayman Daraghmeh, taking him from his home in the town of Ramallah, his family said. Israel has repeatedly detained members of the Hamas faction in the now-defunct Palestinian parliament, chosen in 2006 elections in the West Bank.
Of 47 Hamas legislators from the West Bank and east Jerusalem, 20 are currently in jail, the movement said. Daraghmeh, considered a Hamas pragmatist, was previously held for 20 months and released a year ago.
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank contributed reporting.