GAZA - Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, making his first ever visit to the Gaza Strip, vowed on Saturday never to recognize Israel and said his Islamist group would never abandon its claim to all Israeli territory.
"Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of the land," he told a sea of supporters at an open-air rally marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas and a celebration of the organization's "victory" over Israel.
"We will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli occupation and therefore there is no legitimacy for Israel, no matter how long it will take."
In an uncompromising speech, Mashaal also vowed to free Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, indicating Islamist militants would try to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as a bargaining chip.
Israel last year released 1,027 Palestinians from its jails in return for the liberation of Gilad Schalit, a conscript soldier who was seized by Palestinian guerrillas in 2006 and kept as hostage for more than five years in Gaza.
Thousands of Palestinian detainees remain in Israel. Jerusalem says many of them are terrorists. Hamas calls them freedom fighters.
"We will not rest until we liberate the prisoners. The way we freed some of the prisoners in the past is the way we will use to free the remaining prisoners," Mashaal said to cheers from the huge crowd that had flocked to see him.
The opening speaker at the rally, a masked Hamas terrorist representing the group's armed wing, said that the Islamist group only used 10 percent of its military capability during Operation Pillar of Defense, Ma'an News Agency reported.
"We defeated [Israel] with only one tenth of our resistance fighters. We used only the missile launchers and a limited number of anti-aircraft fighters," he said.
Mashaal was born in the nearby West Bank but has lived most of his life in exile. He set his sights on "liberating Palestine" upon his arrival in the Gaza Strip on Friday for his first visit to the enclave.
Laying out his hopes for future triumphant visits, Mashaal told cheering crowds, "Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa," Ma'an News Agency reported.
According to the report, Mashaal referred to the Gaza visit as his "third birth"; his second birth, he said, was surviving an Israeli assassination attempt in Jordan in 1997.
"I pray to God that my fourth birth will come the day we liberate Palestine," he added.
Hamas said that half a million Palestinians gathered at the outdoor event, which was likely to be used by Mashaal to promote Hamas's growing stature in the Arab world and push the case for reconciliation with its secular political rival, Fatah.
Mashaal, 56, was moved to tears on Friday by the ecstatic reception he received from flag-waving crowds as he toured the tiny territory, which is home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
His trip comes just two weeks after Hamas fought an eight-day conflict with Israel that killed some 170 Palestinians and six Israelis and ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.
There is little doubt the fighting boosted Hamas's standing in the region, winning it the support of Arab neighbors, many of whom used to treat the group as a pariah before the Arab Spring uprisings ushered in several sympathetic Islamist governments.
The rally on Saturday commemorates the 25th anniversary of the founding
of Hamas and the start of the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada,
against Israel in December 1987.
Mashaal ran Hamas from exile in Syria from 2004 until January this year when he quit Damascus because of Iranian-backed President Bashar Assad's war against Sunni Muslim rebels, whose religion and politics are closer to those of the Palestinians. He now divides his time between Qatar and Cairo.
His abrupt departure from Syria initially weakened his position within Hamas: ties with Damascus and Tehran had made him important, but with those links damaged or broken, rivals based within Gaza had started to assert their authority.
Despite regaining the initiative during the Israeli conflict, working closely with Egypt to secure the truce, he says he plans to step down as leader shortly.
Hamas has been staging a secretive leadership election for the last six months and some insiders said the huge welcome Mashaal has received on Gaza's pot-holed streets will put pressure on him to stay on as the group's overall chief.