Tens of thousands of Hamas members rally in northern Gaza

Friday, September 29th 2006, 6:23 am
By: News On 6

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ Tens of thousands of Hamas supporters marched in the Gaza Strip on Friday to show their backing for the militant group, even as its efforts to form a national unity government appeared stalled.

Hamas, which won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January, has dropped in popularity in recent months as international sanctions against the Palestinian government and an Israeli military offensive in Gaza have worsened already intense poverty.

Thousands of people marched through the town of Jebaliya in northern Gaza, wearing green Hamas baseball hats and waving green Hamas flags. One banner carried by the marchers read: ``Yes to our government, no to all the mercenaries trying to sabotage it.''

``The aim of this demonstration is to send a message to the world and to those in our society that the Palestinian people are standing with their elected government. They are rejecting the unjust and unfair siege and all attempts to carry out an internal coup against this government,'' Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri told reporters.

After Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority, Western governments and Israel cut off financial ties with the government, demanding the militant group recognize Israel, renounce violence and respect previous agreements signed with Israel.

The cutoff in foreign aid has prevented the Palestinian Authority from paying full salaries to its 165,000 employees for six months. Many civil servants responded by going on strike and calling for the resignation of the Hamas government.

The Palestinians' situation further deteriorated after Hamas-linked militants attacked an Israeli army post June 25, capturing a soldier, and Israel responded with a widescale offensive in Gaza.

In an effort to end the economic embargo on the government, Hamas officials have tried to form a coalition with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party. However, efforts to form the national unity government have stalled because of Hamas' refusal to recognize Israel.

Al-Masri said Hamas remained committed to forming the coalition. ``We are going to move ahead with the president, because there is no choice,'' he said.

Also Friday, Israeli soldiers killed two Palestinian teenage brothers in the northern Gaza Strip, the army and Palestinian security officials said. The attack occurred in a field near the town of Beit Hanoun, which is often used as a staging base for rocket attacks on Israel.

Palestinian hospital officials said Anwar Hamdan, 16, and Hamam Hamdan, 14, were riding bicycles to inspect rocket launchers in the field when they were killed.

The army said the two were targeted because they had come to the field to collect launchers used to fire rockets in the past week. In recent months, Palestinian militant groups have sent children to collect the rocket launchers, believing they would be less likely to be attacked.