HEBRON, West Bank: Supporters of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas took to the streets of Hebron on Friday for the first time in five years, in a sign of improving relations with their secular Fatah rivals.
Fatah and Hamas have been at loggerheads since the latter pulled off a surprise win in 2006 parliamentary polls. A brief civil war a year later saw Hamas seize control of the nearby Gaza Strip, leaving Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah, to consolidate his power base in the West Bank.
But the two sides have urged unity following an eight-day conflict last month that Hamas fought with Israel in Gaza. The rallies across the Israeli-occupied West Bank, including in Hebron, are the most tangible evidence yet of improved ties.
Little boys in balaclavas, gripping plastic M-16 rifles and models of Hamas's long-range rockets, perched on their fathers' shoulders as a crowd of several thousand commemorated the 25th anniversary of Hamas's founding.
Revellers waved Hamas's green flags and sang along to martial songs blaring from loudspeakers, "Strike Israel like an earthquake, unleash volcanoes on it!"
"This movement is our future. We will fight for every inch of our land, it's ours," said Abu Malek, 60, not using his formal name for fear of being arrested for his views.
Palestinian forces later stopped a small group of protesters from going to attack a nearby Israeli military checkpoint. The youths responded by throwing stones at their own police.
The confidence of the Western-backed Fatah is also on the rise following its initiative at the United Nations last month to see Palestine recognised as a de-facto state.
The two factions say they hope to translate their accomplishments into a long-promised unity agreement, and Hamas allowed Fatah demonstrators to celebrate the U.N. move in Gaza, another unprecedented sight since their 2007 divorce.
However, the continued detention of each other's members, disagreements over elections and disputes over their respective security forces, means any lasting deal is still some time off.
Underscoring the concerns, some demonstrators at a Hamas rally in Nablus on Thursday said they were uneasy about exposing themselves so openly as supporters of the Islamist group.
"It's still not safe for us. We are outside celebrating now, but the security forces will come make their arrests tomorrow like always," said Salem Riyad, wearing a leather jacket and a green headband across his forehead.
Hamas has watched with patient delight as uprisings in the Arab World have swept its Islamist ideological cousins into power, especially the Muslim Brotherhood of neighbouring Egypt, which helped broker a truce ending last month's Gaza fighting.
Demonstrators waved the flags of Egypt and the opposition movement of Syria, from which Hamas was forced to move its political headquarters after falling out with the Syrian government over its campaign against largely Sunni Muslim rebels.
"By God's will, developments in our region and new sights in our Islamic nation will come together with our Jihad to help us liberate Jerusalem," Osama Hamdan, a Hamas political official, told the crowd via a telephone link in Lebanon.
"We will never recognise Israel," the crowd chanted.
While Hamas's charter calls for the destruction of Israel, Abbas and Fatah are committed to a negotiated settlement to create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.