Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians poured on to the streets of Gaza on Friday in a display of popular support for the Fatah faction of the Palestinian leadership as resentment rises against the Islamist Hamas movement.
Central Gaza city was transformed into a mass of yellow flags as Fatah staged its first rally since it was thrown out of Gaza five years ago in a brutal offensive by Hamas.
The rally heard calls for a renewal of the united front between the two groups as Fatah leaders sought to begin the next stage of reconciliation after the years of mutual and violent hostility following Hamas's seizure of power in 2007.
Yesterday's event was permitted in reciprocation for rallies Hamas was allowed in the Fatah-controlled West Bank last month. The groups had previously banned each other from organising parades in their respective strongholds for the past five years and had carried out mutual crackdowns on memberships.
Addressing the gathering by video link from Ramallah in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and president of the Palestinian Authority, said division had to end: "There is no alternative to unity to achieve our goals."
That message was undermined on the streets by the anger of Fatah supporters, who said Hamas's rule was characterised by human rights abuses, restrictions on free speech, and economic privations, including soaring unemployment and high taxes.
"You look at all these people today and they are smiling - you haven't seen that for the last five years because Hamas has been governing the Gaza Strip," said Khaled Shokoky, 27, a nurse in the European hospital in Gaza. "People have not liked the limits on their freedoms. You are not allowed to talk about Hamas's mistakes. People have been shot in the legs because they criticised Hamas."
The rally, marking the 48th anniversary of Fatah's first armed attack on Israel, was the culmination of several days of apparently spontaneous carnival-like scenes. Cars were driven with horns blaring up and down Omar el-Mukhtar Street, the city's central thoroughfare, for hours on Thursday night, their occupants waving flags and shouting pro-Fatah slogans. Many people camped out overnight to ensure a good vantage point at the rally in Soraya Square, where Gaza's central prison once stood. In the ensuing crush, at least 20 were reported to have been injured, and one man was said to have died of a heart attack.
Despite the feeling on the streets, a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said that the event could bring about reconciliation. "The success of the rally is a success for Fatah, and for Hamas too. The positive atmosphere is a step on the way to regain national unity," he said.
An Egyptian official said that the groups would hold further talks within two weeks after suggestions that Hamas - which refuses to recognise Israel - could join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the main Palestinian umbrella organisation that has sanctioned years of peace negotiations.
But Abdel Kadir al-Afifi, 59, a veteran Fatah activist, believed the chances of reconciliation were slim. "Hamas wants everything," he said. "They don't want to share leadership or work with others. They want to be the alternative to the PLO, not become part of it."