Abbas plays both sides ahead of Palestinian poll
Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Mahmoud Abbas promised militants at a campaign rally in Gaza yesterday that he would never abandon them and would work to keep them safe from Israeli attacks, but raised concerns over his ability to move firmly to end Palestinian violence against Israeli if elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 9 January elections. At the rally yesterday in a basketball stadium in the town of Deir el-Balah, Abbas said Palestinians owed the militants for their resistance against the Israeli occupation, and that they had a duty to protect them from Israeli attacks. RWe say to our fighting brothers that are wanted by Israel, we will not rest until you can enjoy a life of security, peace, and dignity, so you can live in your country with total freedom," he said. Abbas also promised to follow in the footsteps of late PA leader Yasser Arafat, saying he would not rest until an independent Palestinian state was established, Israeli settlements were dismantled, and Palestinian refugees were granted their rights. "The principles of Yasser Arafat, and his sayings are his will and it is our duty to implement them," Abbas said. However, the PLO leader criticized militant rocket attacks on Israel. "Don't let your actions be used as an additional pretext and excuse for them [Israel] to fight us, because this is not the proper time for such actions," Abbas said.
Abbas was warmly welcomed by dozens of Palestinian militants, viewed as resistance heroes by Palestinians and terrorist by Israelis and some Western nations.
AbbasU simultaneous support for the militants and his condemnation of their rocket attacks on Israel seem to be paying off politically. A poll released yesterday showed Abbas with 65 per cent support, and his nearest rival, independent reformist candidate Mustafa Barghouti, with only 22 per cent. US Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday said he found it "disturbing" that Abbas would campaign for support while being carried on the shoulders of gunmen.
Nonetheless, Powell said he remained convinced that Abbas' "prevailing position" was the recognition of "the need to end terror and the need to try to persuade all segments of the Palestinian population to move away from terror and to move toward this opportunity for peaceS. Powell told NBC television that if Abbas was elected president, he would likely have to do more than try to persuade militants to end the violence. RHe may have to undertake operations against them," Powell said. "If he does that, and shows a real commitment to end terror, I think he will find an Israeli partner ready to work with him, and he will certainly find the international community, and the especially the United States, ready to play an important role," he said. Meanwhile, Israeli officials said today the Israel Defense Forces had ended their 24-hour operation in the northern Gaza Strip after raiding the area in an attempt to halt cross-border rocket attacks by Palestinian militants. According to Israeli television, the forces were pulled out during the night because of bad weather. The withdrawal came shortly after Abbas said the presence of Israeli troops would hinder the coming weekendUs elections for ArafatUs replacement. The Israeli army said it had killed 13 Palestinian militants during the operation, after Palestinians fired two mortar rounds at a factory in the Erez industrial zone on the border between Gaza and Israel yesterday, wounding two Israeli settlers, one seriously, according to rescue services. A homemade rocket fired from Gaza wounded a woman in the Israeli town of Sderot earlier yesterday.
In response, some 40 Israeli tanks and armored cars rumbled into agricultural areas outside the northern Gaza towns of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, and Jabaliya.
Local sources told reporters that some 20 houses had been demolished in the operation. Palestinian sources said a Palestinian cameraman working for an Israeli television station was shot and seriously wounded by Israeli soldiers, as was a 17-year-old girl who had been walking along the flashpoint Gaza-Egypt border.