Under a sea of fluttering green flags, to the sounds of cheers and fiery rhetoric, some 100,000 Palestinians gathered Wednesday at Gaza City's Al-Katiba Square for a mass rally to mark Hamas' 24th anniversary.
Just days before Israel completes the second phase of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap by releasing an additional 500 Palestinian prisoners, the chief figures of Gaza's ruling Islamic movement stood proudly on stage under a banner emblazoned with the words, "We are on our way to liberate Jerusalem."
During the rally, in which all of Hamas' senior leadership was in attendance, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on Gazans to sacrifice their lives for the Palestinian cause. "We will create an army of a million shahids (martyrs) that will march on Jerusalem and liberate it from the Zionist occupier," he said from the podium.
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The massive crowd hoisted Hamas flags into the air and chanted, "Death to Israel!" and, listing the names of Israeli cities, "With the help of Allah we will return to Jaffa, Lod, Haifa, Tiberias, Acre and Ramle."
To the sounds of applause and cheers, members of Hamas' military wing spoke of the terrorist acts its military wing Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades has carried out over the years, boasting of 1,365 Israelis killed and 6,411 wounded. Hamas also claimed it had kidnapped 24 Israeli soldiers, which supposedly secured the release of 1,050 Hamas-affiliated Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails.
According to Hamas' website, since its inception in 1987, Hamas has carried out 1,117 terrorist attacks against both civilian and military targets, 87 of which were perpetrated by suicide bombers. The speakers on stage also said Hamas' military wing has fired more than 11,000 rockets and mortar bombs into Israel.
In mid-October, Israel and Hamas signed a prisoner swap deal in which Israel agreed to release 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit, who had been held in captivity for more than five years following a Hamas cross-border raid.
The first phase of the Egyptian- and German-mediated agreement was carried out on Oct. 18, when Hamas handed over Shalit to Egyptian authorities at the Rafah Crossing, while Israel simultaneously released 477 prisoners, most of whom returned to the Gaza Strip. Some high-risk individuals were deported to third countries as a safeguard against further terrorist activity. The agreement stipulated that a second group of prisoners would be released 60 days after the first phase was carried out. Israeli authorities have already drafted a list of prisoners to pass on to the Israeli president, who will now have to issue a pardon for each individual to have them released. Unlike the first phase of the agreement that saw the release of Hamas top terrorists responsible for some of the deadliest attacks, Israel had full discretion over the identity of the more than 500 prisoners to be released in the second phase.
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