GAZA CITY: Gaza’s Hamas Premier Ismail Haniyah warned Israel yesterday it would pay dearly if it heeded its foreign minister’s call to reoccupy the Palestinian enclave to try to halt rocket attacks.
“We tell the enemy and (Foreign Minister Avigdor) Lieberman who is threatening to reoccupy Gaza that the time for your threats is over,” Haniyah told a rally in Gaza City.
“Any aggression or crime or stupidity you commit will cost you a very high price.”
On March 12, during a two-day flare-up in which Gaza militants fired at least 60 rockets into Israel and the Israelis responded with dozens of air strikes, Lieberman said Israel would have no choice but to reoccupy Gaza, from which it withdrew all troops and settlers in summer 2005.
“There is no alternative to a full reoccupation of the entire Gaza Strip,” he told Channel 2 television.
Speaking to around 40,000 supporters at a public rally marking 10 years since an Israeli air strike killed Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Haniyah warned Israel that Gaza militants had “far more capabilities than you imagine”.
He also restated his Islamic movement’s opposition to peace talks between Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of president Mahmud Abbas.
“Stop negotiating with the enemy,” he told the PA. “We will not recognise Israel.”
The memorial rally for Yassin — the wheelchair-bound co-founder of Hamas killed on March 22, 2004 — took place under the watchful eyes of hundreds of Hamas policemen who closed off streets around the central Al Sarraya square and took up positions on rooftops.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied to show support for their Islamist Hamas government, which has long been at loggerheads with Israel but is now shunned by Egypt as well.
The military-backed government that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ ideological kin, in Cairo last year has blacklisted the Brotherhood and Hamas as terrorist groups and clamped down on people, goods and arms crossing the Sinai-Gaza border.
Hamas tried in vain to mollify Egypt by insisting that its hostility was directed exclusively at Israel, but is now turning up the rhetoric.
“The punishment of the people of Gaza must end,” Haniyah told the rally in a speech interspersed with chants of “Jihad is not Terrorism” over the loudspeakers.
“Why punish Gaza? Was it because it achieved victory against the Occupier? Why punish Gaza? Was it because it took up the rifle against Israel?” Haniyah asked.
“We are living through a difficult stage and harsh challenges, but we are not terrified and we are not defeated. We have become familiar with difficulties and this stage is not the most difficult.”
Hamas has repeatedly fought Israel, which withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Islamists won a Palestinian legislative election the next year and, after a uneasy power-share with the US-backed rival faction Fatah, seized control of Gaza in 2007.
The tone of defiance appeared aimed in part at undermining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who holds sway in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and is holding peace talks with Israel under Washington’s auspices.
“We call upon the Palestinian negotiator to quit this pointless track and not to extend negotiation,” said Haniyah.
Though Hamas has largely held fire since its last war with Israel, in November 2012, the Israelis have been uncovering tunnels dug from Gaza to allow cross-border attacks in the next confrontation. Haniyah said the tunnels showed his faction’s dedication to fighting Israel until its eventual destruction.
“From below ground and above ground, you, the Occupiers, will be dismissed. You have no place in the land of Palestine.”
Haniyah described Egypt as “brother, friend and neighbour”, but another Hamas official based in the West Bank, Hassan Youssef, had harsher words.
“We say to the authors of the coup in Egypt, the criminals who support the Occupation (Israel), that the blockade will not work,” he said in a televised speech.
Cairo’s cold shoulder has exacerbated Hamas’ isolation since it quit its headquarters in Damascus in protest at Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s crackdown on opposition groups, a move that led Iran to cut off funding.
Palestinian officials said Hamas was now in fence-mending talks with Tehran, though their outcome remained unclear.
Senior Islamic Jihad officials and members of smaller groups attended the event but Abbas’ Fatah, Hamas’s bitter rival, stayed away. The Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, sent threatening text messages to Israelis and foreign reporters in Israel on Saturday, the anniversary of Yassin’s killing.
“If Gaza will be attacked the life of the Zionists will be hell” and “In the next war all the Land of Palestine will return,” some read.
“Al Qassam has chosen you to be the next Shalit,” another message stated, referring to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was abducted and held in Gaza for five years until Hamas freed him in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The email account of an Israeli security affairs newsletter, Israel Defence, was hacked and an email posted on Yassin’s killing. “We don’t forget the blood of our sheikh, We swear again to take revenge, and this time by taking off the head of your leaders,” it said.