Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Wednesday called for the formation of an Arab army “to liberate Jerusalem and the Aksa Mosque very soon.”

Addressing tens of thousands of supporters during a rally in Gaza City marking the 24th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, Haniyeh said his movement remained committed to armed struggle as a strategic option to liberate “all the occupied Palestinian territories,” and that Hamas, “together with all the free peoples, will lead the fight to liberate all Palestine.”

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Held under the banner of “Jerusalem, We are Coming,” the rally was one of the biggest shows of support for Hamas in recent years.

Hamas officials estimated the number of participants at 350,000. However, some Palestinians put the figure at fewer than half of that.

The event was attended by many schoolchildren, some under the age of 10, dressed in military outfits and brandishing fake rockets and rifles.

One of the boys, Iyad Taha, nine, told a local reporter: “As of today, I belong to Hamas. When I grow up I will be with Hamas and defend the Aksa Mosque and Muslims. Hamas beat the occupation [Israel] and ridiculed them. It kidnapped their soldier and forced them to release our prisoners.”

Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders addressed the crowd from a 16-meterlong podium in the shape of a ship carrying an emblem of the Aksa Mosque.

The world could no longer ignore Hamas’s strong presence in the Palestinian arena, Haniyeh said. “Anyone who wants to enter the Palestinian arena will have to deal with Hamas, which is a prominent and great player in the arena,” he said.

Referring to the recent prisoner exchange agreement for Gilad Schalit, Haniyeh said that the “armed resistance” has succeeded in gaining the release of Palestinians from Israeli prisons. He hailed the prisoner swap as a “security, military and negotiations battle” with Israel.

Haniyeh warned that the Palestinian Authority’s continued clampdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank was threatening to torpedo efforts to reconcile Fatah and his movement.

The Hamas leader heaped praise on the Arab Spring, saying the antiregime protests have benefited Hamas in particular and the Palestinian cause in general.

Yehya Sinwar, a Hamas operative who was released in the prisoner exchange in return for Schalit, called on all Palestinians to join Hamas and to prepare for the battle for Jerusalem.

The era of weakness is gone forever, “and from now on no one [a reference to Israel] will remain strong,” Sinwar told told the crowd.

Appealing to Arabs in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf, Sinwar urged them to prepare for the “big march” on Jerusalem, which he said will take place soon.

On the eve of the celebration, Hamas’s armed wing, Izzadin Kassam, published statistics about its “martyrs” and terrorist attacks over the past 24 years.

According to the figures, Hamas killed 1,365 Israelis and wounded 6,411 others, while it lost 1,848 of its men.

The group boasted that its members carried out 1,117 “jihad” attacks, including 87 suicide bombings. It also said that its members fired 11,093 rockets and missiles at Israel over the past 24 years.

A Hamas spokesman expressed satisfaction with the large turnout, saying it serves as a reminder that the movement could easily win the next Palestinian elections, slated for May.

Hamas legislator Mushir al-Masri said that Wednesday’s rally was a sign of his movement’s popularity among Palestinians. At one point during the event, he asked the crowd through loudspeakers: “Will you vote for Hamas?” The response from the crowd came immediately: “Yes.”

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