7:54 AM PST, January 2, 2005
DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip —
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told hundreds of armed militants at a Gaza campaign rally Sunday that he would never abandon them and would fight to protect them from Israeli raids.
In his presidential campaign to replace Yasser Arafat, Abbas is courting support from gunmen considered heroes by many Palestinians but terrorists by most Israelis.
Israeli troops, meanwhile, concluded a three-day operation in southern Gaza early Sunday just as they began another operation in northern Gaza. Israel says it was targeting militants who fire homemade rockets and mortar rounds at Israeli towns and settlements. Three Israeli civilians were wounded in such attacks Sunday, one seriously.
In southern Gaza, Israel pulled out of Khan Younis, leaving at least 13 armed Palestinians dead, the army said. Palestinian security officials put the number of dead at 11 and said nine of them were armed.
Soon after, about 40 Israeli tanks and armored cars rumbled into agricultural areas outside the northern Gaza towns of Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya and Jabaliya.
The raids came as candidates campaigned in Gaza ahead of the Jan. 9 elections for a new president of the Palestinian Authority. Though Abbas is the overwhelming favorite, he lacks Arafat's charisma and street credentials.
But Abbas holds a significant lead over his rivals in the campaign, according to a new poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research published Sunday.
The poll found Abbas was favored by 65 percent of voters, giving him a 43-percentage-point lead over Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and pro-democracy activist. Seventy-one percent of those polled said Abbas was the leader most able to make peace with Israel.
But even if Abbas posts a strong victory, he will need to consolidate support and get militants to back his new government. The poll put Abbas' support in the Gaza Strip at 70 percent and in the West Bank at 62 percent.
It found his Fatah movement favored by 41 percent of voters and the radical Islamic Hamas movement favored by 20 percent. The poll, conducted Dec. 30-31, surveyed 1,319 respondents and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Israel has demanded a crackdown on violent groups, which Abbas has repeatedly rejected.
In an interview Saturday with The Associated Press, Abbas said Palestinians are beholden to the gunmen for their resistance against the Israeli occupation and have a duty to protect them from reprisals.
At a rally Sunday in a basketball stadium in the central Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, Abbas pledged before thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of gunmen, not to abandon them.
"We 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 Arafat's footsteps, saying he would not rest until an independent Palestinian state was established, Israeli settlements were dismantled and Palestinian refugees got their rights.
"The principles of Yasser Arafat, and his sayings, are his will and it is our duty to implement it," Abbas said.
Mahmoud Mashabat, head of the Jenin Martyrs' Brigades, a small, local militant group, embraced Abbas and kissed him.
After Abbas left, the gunmen began shooting in the air.
On Saturday, Abbas was warmly welcomed by dozens of Palestinian gunmen in the Rafah refugee camp, a frequent flashpoint of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. During that rally, he praised Palestinian fugitives wanted by Israel as heroes.
Abbas' aides have described the campaign stops as election politics. But they have raised concern in Israel, which refused to negotiate with Arafat, who died Nov. 11, accusing him of backing terrorism.
Ahmed Subah, an Abbas aide, said recently that the candidate's "real" agenda is "ending the Israeli occupation through peaceful negotiations, attaining security for Palestinian citizens and achieving reform and development."
Abbas also must figure out how to work with Hamas, the largest Palestinian opposition group. Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis and opposes the existence of Israel, is boycotting the election, although it has said it will honor the results.
Meanwhile, Khan Younis residents who fled their homes at the start of the military operation began streaming back early Sunday. Sifting through the rubble, women and children gathered blankets, clothes, toys and kitchenware in an attempt to salvage something from the destruction.
Residents said the army demolished the main market in the neighborhood targeted during the operation and ripped up the main road and electrical and water lines. A few homes also were demolished, they said.
"Is this the message for the New Year? We thought the New Year would bring us hope of security, but it looks like we are going to face another year of suffering," said Naima Tarourtri, 52, whose home was among those destroyed.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army began busing hundreds of Palestinians to Egypt on Sunday to make the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, later this month. The army had arranged for about 4,500 Palestinians to be taken on Israeli buses to Egypt, where they will board planes for Saudi Arabia, said Col. Yoav Mordechai, head of Israel's Gaza liaison office.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslims annually join the pilgrimage, or Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the holiest place in Islam. This year the Hajj -- which is one of the five pillars of Islam -- is scheduled for Jan. 22.