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Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan on Saturday praised his Fatah movement's armed struggle against Israel, but called on gunmen to set aside their weapons and move toward democracy.
Dahlan was given a hero's welcome by thousands of cheering Palestinians upon his return home from weeks of medical treatment in Belgrade. Posters bearing Dahlan's image and Palestinian flags decorated the streets.
A cheering crowd of Palestinian security officials and family members greeted Dahlan, a Cabinet minister, as he crossed into Gaza from Egypt, and supporters lined both sides of the street on the road leading to his hometown of Khan Younis. There, Dahlan addressed thousands who chanted his nickname, "Abu Fadi, Adu Fadi."
Without the armed resistance, the Palestinians would not have made progress in their struggle, Dahlan told the crowd, in an apparent reference to Israel's withdrawal last month from the Gaza Strip. However, he said, it was time for Fatah to control their arms, end the chaos in Gaza and focus on winning a January parliamentary vote.
"We are the pioneers in the Fatah movement and we should put an end to the division. We should be united. It's time for democracy," Dahlan said.
Some Palestinians attribute the internal fighting that has plagued the Gaza Strip since Israel's pullout to Dahlan's absence. They hope Dahlan, who has some influence over the corruption-plagued security forces, will help bring law and order to the coastal area.
Dahlan first fell ill at the end of August, and was treated in Israel and Jordan for a slipped disc in his back before leaving for Belgrade. He did not discuss his health situation on Saturday, but looked well as he smiled and waved to the crowd.
"I pledge and I vow to be loyal to you until we achieve our goal. Our goal is not only to establish our independent state with Jerusalem as its capital on the 1967 occupied land, but to give the respect and dignity for those who have spent their lives fighting for Palestine," Dahlan said.