JERUSALEM -- Turning the streets of Gaza City into a swarm of sunshine-yellow flags, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians celebrated the anniversary of the Fatah faction on Friday in the heartland of its militant Islamist rival, Hamas, the latest in a series of signals heralding possible reconciliation between the parties after their bitter five-year rift.
The rally, which came on the heels of Hamas celebrations last month in the Fatah-dominated West Bank, added momentum to what Palestinian leaders consider their twin victories in November: Hamas's firing rockets into Israeli population centers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the Palestine Liberation Organization's upgrade to nonmember observer state status at the United Nations. Though it is unclear the two sides will ultimately overcome real differences, the show of unity creates a diplomatic quandary for the United States, which has urged Israel to return to negotiations with the Palestinians, but also rejects direct talks with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.
Nabil A. Shaath, a Fatah leader who organized Friday's event, and Taher al-Nounou, a Hamas spokesman, each said in separate interviews on Friday evening that they expected reconciliation talks to begin under the auspices of the Egyptians within two weeks. President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt invited President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority to Cairo, Mr. Shaath said, where he is expected to meet with the Hamas political chief, Khaled Meshal.
"The climate is excellent for reconciliation," Mr. Shaath said. "I don't think there are any more organizational issues to be settled; what is needed is to sit down and write a political program. Cairo remains the best chaperon for this."
Friday's huge rally, the first Fatah anniversary celebration in Gaza since Hamas took control of the area in 2007, was unimaginable even six weeks ago. Though more than 170 Gazans were killed and dozens of buildings destroyed during the intense eight-day conflict with Israel, and the United Nations upgrade is largely symbolic, the two events seem to have strengthened both Hamas and Fatah in the eyes of the Palestinian public.
A mid-December poll by the Palestinian Center for Survey Research showed Mr. Abbas's approval rating at 54 percent, up from 46 percent in September after a year of free-fall. Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister in Gaza, got an even bigger boost, to 56 percent from 35 percent, and for the first time, the poll showed Mr. Haniya would beat Mr. Abbas in a head-to-head presidential election.
Positive evaluations of the conditions in both Gaza and the West Bank also rose significantly, and 39 percent said they expected unity between the two areas to soon be restored, nearly triple the portion who said so three months before. Granting permission for rivals to hold rallies is one thing, analysts said, but compromising on core principles and actually sharing power quite another. Recent public statements by Mr. Abbas, Mr. Haniya and Mr. Meshal show great gulfs remain regarding how to deal with Israel, among other things, and Palestinian political experts said they were not as confident as people in the street that such differences would be quickly worked out.
"Neither side is willing to be seen as responsible for the continuation of disunity, so they give lip service to reconciliation, but they realize fully that reconciliation at this point is not on the agenda," said Khalil Shikaki, who heads the Ramallah-based center for survey research. "Reconciliation now means it will come at a price for one of the two, and neither side is willing to pay the price at the moment."
Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza City, said relations between the parties have clearly improved since the Gaza conflict, but he called the rallies, telephone calls between leaders and exchange of political prisoners "confidence-building measures," not substantive progress. He and others noted that the factions have signed no fewer than four peace pacts in the past five years, none of which have been fulfilled, and that those agreements call for establishing a national unity government, holding presidential and parliamentary elections and reconstituting the Palestine Liberation Organization to include Hamas, among other things.
"What we see now is some kind or moral reconciliation," Professor Abusada said. "Hamas and Fatah are no longer inciting against each other, Hamas and Fatah are no longer accusing each other, but the big issues have not been tackled yet."
Israel and the United States have expressed deep concerns about the prospect of reconciliation, particularly now that an emboldened Gaza leadership feels it has the upper hand. Twice in the last few days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has warned in public comments that Hamas could "take over" the Palestinian Authority. Last month, after Mr. Meshal promised at his own huge Gaza rally to liberate Palestine "from the river to the sea," Mr. Netanyahu condemned Mr. Abbas for considering a full partnership with him.
On Friday, Mr. Abbas, who has not stepped foot in Gaza since 2007, appeared via video feed from Ramallah calling for reconciliation.
"Soon we will achieve unity and end the occupation, raising the Palestinian flag over Al Aqsa mosque and Jerusalem," he told the large crowd, according to the Ma'an news agency. "Our whole lives under occupation and siege, our eyes are now fixed on Jerusalem and we must all take this opportunity to combine our efforts, hearts, and our determination to save Jerusalem, our capital."
The president was the only official to address the rally, organizers said, with other speeches as well as a much-anticipated dance program canceled because of the surprise turnout. Health officials in Gaza said 50 people were injured, three seriously, in falls from high perches, electrical accidents, and near-suffocations.
"It was so noisy and the sound system was not really coping," Mr. Shaath said afterward. "I have a Ph.D. in management, but I have absolutely no experience in management of one million people in celebration."
Crowd estimates ranged from 300,000 to 1.2 million, in any case a large swath of Gaza's 1.7 million people. Many may not have been active supporters of Fatah, but people who wanted to show unity or simply watch the spectacle. Thousands, including lots of families, spent Thursday night in Saraya Square to ensure themselves a spot, and by dusk on Friday, the throngs had not fully dispersed. After a mass prayer at noon, witnesses said, most of the hours were spent singing revolutionary songs from Fatah's early days and waving flags.
"We came from the early morning, it's like a holiday," said a 23-year-old woman from Beit Hanoun, in the north of the strip, who gave only her first name, Amani. "We are coming today because we have been oppressed for five years. We wish that this will be the first step of unity."
Abeer Ayyoub contributed reporting from Gaza City, and Fares Akram from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Wire service reports also contributed.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.