Thousands join Hamas march against US, EU in Gaza

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) - Thousands of Hamas supporters marched under pouring rain in Gaza on Friday to protest against U.S. and EU criticism ahead of Palestinian elections and to pressure President Mahmoud Abbas not to delay the vote.

"No to U.S. and European dictation," said one banner.

Worried at the prospect of a strong Hamas showing in the Jan. 25 parliamentary poll, the European Union joined the U.S. House of Representatives this week in threatening to cut vital aid if the Islamic militant group wins.

Hamas is branded a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and European Union. It wants to eliminate the Jewish state and has spearheaded a suicide bombing campaign.

Donors have been pushing for the long-delayed elections to be held on time as a way to strengthen Palestinian democracy, but the prospect of Hamas doing well has put them in a quandary. Hamas did not contest the last vote in 1996.

Hamas is seen by many Palestinians as less tainted by corruption than Abbas's dominant Fatah.

Hamas has also been boosted by a split in Fatah and is keen to capitalise on that. Some Palestinian officials are urging Abbas to delay the vote -- something that he says he does not want to do.

Hamas swept recent municipal polls in West Bank cities and made a strong showing in three earlier rounds of local voting.

"We have come here to tell the American administration and (U.S. President George W.) Bush and all those who listed Hamas as a terror organisation that Hamas has become the choice of the entire people," said Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri.

Hamas and 10 other factions told Abbas on Thursday that they wanted the election even if Israel banned voting by Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Palestinian officials had earlier said that would be reason for a delay.

Hamas has respected a 10-month-old truce to a greater degree than some other militant groups, but its pledge to "ensure calm" expires at the end of the year.

Political analysts believe it is unlikely that Hamas will resume attacks in January even if it says it is no longer bound by the truce, because it knows that the ceasefire is popular with Palestinians.

The chance it will return to all-out conflict is seen as much greater if elections are not held on time.

Copyright © 2005 Reuters