Hamas, the Islamist militant group, staged its first show of strength in the West Bank in more than five years yesterday (Thursday), with a rally that showcased its new-found credibility among Palestinians and signalled a significant landmark towards reconciliation with political rivals, Fatah.
Around three thousand supporters - many waving trademark green banners - crowded into Shohada Square in Nablus city centre for a demonstration marking Hamas's 25th anniversary.
The Fatah faction and Hamas have been estranged since the latter's violent takeover of Gaza in 2007, during which more than 400 Fatah members were killed. Fatah, the secular grouping headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, responded by preventing Hamas from staging public events in the West Bank.
"Salute the Lions of Qassam," an announcer told yesterday's gathering, referring to the rockets fired into Israel from Gaza during last month's eight-day conflict, which left at least 170 Palestinians and six Israelis dead. Hamas has claimed the war as a moral victory.
Several hundred followers watched proceedings from an overlooking multi-storey car park, as pro-Hamas songs with lyrics such as "earthquake Israel!" blared out over a public address system.
The go-ahead for the rally was apparently given by Abbas after last month's United Nations' vote that granted de facto recognition to a Palestinian state and prompted new attempts at reconciling the rival groupings.
It followed last weekend's visit to Gaza by Hamas's leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshaal, who also called for reconciliation and shared a platform with Fatah members.
The talk of rapprochement has antagonised Israel. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, this week criticised Abbas for failing to denounce comments by Meshaal in which he vowed to reclaim all of historic Palestine and never to recognise Israel.
In Nablus, a city renowned as a hotbed of militancy during the Palestinian intifada of the 2000s, many spoke warmly of the prospects for reconciliation. The city's independent mayor, Ghassan Shaka'a, an executive member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, predicted that Hamas would be forced to recognise Israel if reconciliation happened.
"Meshaal said in Gaza that Hamas should be part of the PLO and that he is for negotiations," he told The Daily Telegraph. "The PLO represents the Palestine people and recognises Israel and if they [Hamas] become part of the PLO, they should accept that recognition."
But on the streets, Hamas's philosophy of armed struggle appeared hugely preferred over Abbas's pragmatic approach that has seen militant groups disarmed in a policy of security coordination with Israel.
Yazid Khader, 45, a Hamas activist who had been arrested 10 times by Abbas's forces, said reconciliation could only be achieved if such cooperation were abandoned.
Israel's combative foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has been charged with fraud and breach of trust in a move that prompted calls for him to resign.
The country's attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, said he had decided to dismiss more serious accusations concerning money laundering and bribery.