GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Addressing the largest rally since his 1994 return from exile, an emotional Yasser Arafat on Friday promised the Palestinian people they would have their own state early in the new millennium.
Tens of thousands of people, including hundreds of armed men, packed Gaza City's huge central square. The crowd lit torches, shot off fireworks and waved Palestinian flags to mark the 35th anniversary of the founding of Arafat's Fatah movement.
The Palestinian leader's upbeat speech was accompanied by chants of "Arafat, we are with you!" from the crowd. Arafat was clearly moved, smiling broadly and flashing V-signs. He was flanked by his Cabinet ministers on the balcony of the Palestinian parliament.
The Fatah rally ended about four hours before midnight, but many revelers stayed on to dance to live folk music and usher in the new millennium.
Most Palestinians are Muslims for whom the Christian-era year 2000 has no spiritual meaning. But daily life is conducted according to the Western calendar, and much of the Muslim world has been swept along with the millennium celebrations worldwide.
In his speech, Arafat said statehood was imminent.
"My brothers, soon we will celebrate together the establishment of the Palestinian state and its capital, holy Jerusalem, at the beginning of the new millennium," he said.
Israel and the Palestinians are to conclude a peace treaty by September. Such a treaty will probably lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although Israel has said it will never relinquish sovereignty over east Jerusalem, the sector the Palestinians seek as a capital.
After his speech, Arafat lit a 6-foot-high torch on stage to cheers from the crowd.
One supporter, Samir Issa, 22, wearing an Arafat T-shirt and holding up a Kalashnikov assault rifle, said he was hopeful for the future.
"Thirty-five years ago, Arafat lit the torch of the revolution and tonight we are lighting with him the torch of the new millennium," he said. "The millennium means for us a hope to get our rights and end our suffering."