By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Brandishing placards showing George W. Bush as a vampire swigging Muslim blood, thousands of Hamas supporters protested in Gaza on Wednesday against the U.S. president’s visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Some 20,000 members of the Islamist group, shunned by the West for refusing to renounce violence, set U.S. and Israeli flags alight. Bush was a "butcher" whose first presidential visit to the Holy Land was skewed towards helping Israel, they said.
"In his first words Bush talked about Israel, its security, its democracy and the right of America and Israel to defend themselves," senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar told reporters at the rally.
"He did not talk about settlements or the assaults against our people." In Jerusalem, Jewish families waved Israeli and American flags and cheered Bush, who hopes his visit will invigorate efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office.
Protesters in Gaza, which Hamas seized in June after routing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah forces, waved green Hamas flags as well as posters with pictures of Bush as a vampire drinking from a cup marked "Muslim blood".
Hamas said tens of thousands attended the protest while witnesses put the number at about 20,000.
Hamas refuses to recognise Israel and has vowed to undermine Abbas’s efforts to make peace with the Jewish state in exchange for an independent Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank. Its control of the Gaza Strip is likely to complicate any accord.
Six weeks ago, Olmert and Abbas agreed at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland, to relaunch peace negotations but talks have been paralysed by a row over Israeli settlement activity.
Many Palestinians are deeply sceptical about the chances for peace. Bush will not visit Gaza during the trip.
Israeli has stepped up raids into Gaza since Annapolis in response to rocket fire from militants. Some Hamas officials say they expect Bush to approve tougher reprisals.
Earlier, gunmen who said they were from a previously unknown Islamist group called "Army of the Nation" told a news conference they would try to kill Bush during his visit. It was unclear how much of a threat they posed.
The group said it adopted al Qaeda-style ideology but had no official ties with the group against which Bush has waged war. (Writing by Rebecca Harrison; Editing by Robert Woodward)