"We will never recognize Israel": Hamas leader

Islamist group celebrates 23rd anniversary

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Hamas would consider a "truce" with Israel, but will never recognize the Jewish state, senior leader Ismail Haniyeh said on Tuesday as thousands of Gazans celebrated the group's 23rd anniversary.

Speaking before flag-waving Palestinians from across the Gaza Strip, Haniyeh said the Islamist group would never recognize its sworn enemy.

"We said it five years ago and we say it now ... we will never, we will never, we will never recognize Israel," Haniyeh told the gathering which some organizers said was attended by around 250,000 people.

"Our founder Sheikh (Ahmad) Yassin said: Liberate what you can of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem, and where it cannot be liberated, declare a truce," he said, referring to the group's spiritual leader who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.

Ahead of its anniversary celebrations, Hamas reiterated its aim to recover all of historic Palestine from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River.

Haniyeh had raised speculation last month about a change in Hamas's charter, which calls for Israel's destruction, by suggesting the group could accept a referendum on any peace treaty giving the Palestinians a state on land Israel captured in a 1967 war.

But he said such a truce would entail "no recognition of Israel and no concessions over any part of the land of Palestine".

Challenged critics

In his speech, Haniyeh challenged critics and local surveys which said Hamas's popularity was in decline over poor governance in Gaza.

He voiced confidence that Hamas, which defeated Abbas's long-dominant Fatah movement in a 2006 election and seized the Gaza Strip in 2007 from forces loyal to the Palestinian leader, would win any future ballot.

Large pictures of Hamas leaders were displayed under a banner reading "I remain committed to the cause."

Hamas bussed in supporters from across the coastal enclave, and children at government-run schools and students at three Hamas-affiliated universities were given the day off to attend the rally.

Ahead of the celebrations, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the rally would prove how popular the Islamist movement was among Gazans.

"The basic message the big crowds will send to all the parties is that lots of people support Hamas," Abu Zuhri told AFP.

"The aim of the siege on the Hamas movement and the Gaza Strip was to force us to raise the white flag of surrender, but Hamas will not break," he said.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after militants there captured an Israeli soldier in a deadly cross-border raid in 2006. It tightened the restrictions a year later after Hamas seized control of the territory from its secular Fatah rivals.

The restrictions were relaxed earlier this year although a strict naval blockade remains in place.

The hard-line movement, whose name is an acronym for the Islamic Resistance Movement, was founded December 14, 1987 at the start of the first intifada (1987-1993) by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, a blind and wheelchair-bound cleric.

It quickly became known as the group which carried out the most suicide bombings against Israel during the 1990s and during the second intifada, which started in 22D0 and petered out some five years later.