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Associated Press
Hamas militants stand during a Hamas news conference in Gaza City on Thursday. Many observers think Hamas’ influence has grown.

Hamas seen as victor by Gazans

– A week of Israeli bombardment has pulverized government buildings and militant weapons stores, and left 161 Palestinians dead. But the Gaza Strip’s Hamas leadership has emerged stronger than ever, Palestinians in Gaza said Thursday.

Hamas, along with the masked fighters of other Gaza militant groups, held boisterous victory rallies across the Gaza Strip on Thursday, the day after an Egypt-brokered cease-fire with Israel went into effect.

Amid parades of flags and political bombast, each of the strip’s militant factions hailed what they called a triumph for the Palestinian resistance and a new era for Palestinian unity.

But the separate public appearances by each militant group – rather than one unified rally – also raised questions about the sturdiness of the cease-fire.

Hamas has struggled to control extremist offshoots within the coastal enclave, and it was unclear whether this newest truce had rendered the group any more capable of preventing a breach by other groups in possession of long-range rockets, including Islamic Jihad, which participated in the cease-fire negotiations in Cairo.

As the truce neared the 24-hour mark Thursday evening, many spoke with anticipation of the next “phase” of the agreement, in which Hamas plans to negotiate an end to Israel’s blockade of the strip and wider mobility for Palestinians in the border zone, where Israel maintains its right to shoot those who come within one mile.

The specter of support to Palestinian militants from Iran also loomed Thursday, as Hamas and Islamic Jihad thanked Iran for supplying them with weapons.

Relations between Hamas and Iran appeared to have frayed this year when Hamas cut ties to Syria, another Iranian ally. But the statements of gratitude Thursday, signaled the alliance could be on the mend.

In Gaza, many Palestinians said the Islamist group’s role in rallying regional support around the Palestinian cause had exposed the impotence of their political rivals.

Fatah, the secular party that dominates the ranks of the Palestinian Authority and governs the West Bank under Israeli occupation, has done little to advance a peace treaty despite Israeli recognition and U.S. backing.

By drawing Israel to the negotiating table this week, Hamas has effectively rendered the Palestinian Authority irrelevant, said Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist and former spokesman for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Hamas has demonstrated “that it is part of the future, part of the changes taking place in Arab countries, and that the Palestinian Authority is part of the past,” Khatib said.

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