NABLUS, WEST BANK // Thousands of Hamas members protested against Israel here yesterday at the Islamist group's first rally in the West Bank for five years.
Bearing Hamas's green flags and cardboard replicas of the rockets Gaza militants fire at Israel, supporters marched from the Nasser Mosque in Nablus and rallied in the central square, where they called for a return to armed resistance against Israel.
The rare display signalled Hamas's rising influence after its tough fight in last month's eight-day assault by Israel's military on the Gaza Strip, which Hamas captured from its rivals Fatah in 2007.
Fatah controls the West Bank's Palestinian Authority, and its leaders are under mounting popular pressure to offer Hamas concessions, such as public rallies.
"The PA was embarrassed by what happened in Gaza because Hamas proved it could stand up to the Israelis," said Abdul Satter Kassem, a political-science professor at Al Najah University in Nablus.
Hamas and Fatah have been unable to settle their feud despite a reconciliation agreement in May 2011. The acrimony has been aggravated by coordination between PA security forces and Israel's military, which has crippled Hamas operations in the West Bank.
Mr Kassem said the Nablus rally may have been used by PA officials as a warning to Israel, which has punished the West Bank leadership for winning non-member state recognition in the United Nations last month.
Israel retaliated by announcing thousands of new Jewish settler homes and withholding US$100 million (Dh367m) of taxes collected for the PA, exacerbating its already desperate financial situation.
Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president, yesterday criticised Hamas's leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, for a stridently anti-Israel speech in Gaza on Saturday.
Mr Meshaal addressed thousands - his first ever visit there - during a ceremony marking Hamas's 25th anniversary. He vowed never to recognise Israel's right to exist. The next day, he reaffirmed that Hamas does "not accept the two-state solution" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
But Mr Abbas rebuked the Hamas leader. "We recognised Israel in 1993," he said during a visit to Turkey. "There is an agreement between Fatah and Hamas that recognises the two-state solution. Meshaal approved this agreement."
Mr Meshaal had recently offered a relatively pragmatic tone on Israel, suggesting Hamas could tacitly recognise its existence. He even threw his backing behind Mr Abbas's successful bid in the UN, which contained language that explicitly recognised Israel.
Hamas held significant sway in Nablus during the second Palestinian intifada that began in 2000, during which its members orchestrated numerous suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. That led to devastating Israeli reprisals against Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The Islamist group officially calls for Israel's destruction, but many of its members in Nablus yesterday hoped for a Hamas-Fatah rapprochement
"There was anger with Fatah, of course, but after the war on Gaza we hope there will be real reconciliation so we can be united," said Abdulrahim Rabaya, 25, a teacher in Nablus.
He joined in chants calling for returning to arms against Israel.
Israeli leaders have turned Mr Meshaal's tough comments against Mr Abbas, who last engaged in peace talks with Israel two years ago. He has since refused to return to negotiations with the government of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu because of Israeli-settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
"The leaders of Hamas openly called for the destruction of Israel. Where was the outrage? Where were the UN resolutions? Where was President Abbas?" Mr Netanyahu said on Monday.
"There was nothing. There was silence. And it was deafening silence. Well, we can't accept that."
Analysts have said Mr Meshaal, a supporter of reconciliation with Fatah, may be using a hard-line tone to shore up power in the group. His pragmatist outlook had received the backing of Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, which have encouraged Hamas's break from the so-called resistance axis of Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah.
Last year, Mr Meshaal oversaw the dismantling of Hamas's Damascus headquarters.
* With additional reporting by Reuters