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Courting rebels, Abbas urges calm

Offers support for militants as Israeli forces flock to Gaza

DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip -- Mahmoud Abbas, the leading candidate for Palestinian president, called on militants yesterday to stop firing rockets at Israel, as Israeli tanks and troops massed in northern Gaza in response to the latest barrage.

A poll released yesterday indicated that Abbas had the backing of two-thirds of his people, three times the support of his nearest rival before the Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat.

Still, the candidate with the gray, bureaucratic image spent the day courting those who have disparaged him in the past -- young militants.

With Israeli tanks gathering nearby, Abbas expressed his support for the gunmen, viewed as resistance heroes by Palestinians and as terrorists by Israel, at a campaign rally at a school in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya.

But he also criticized the rocket fire.

"Don't let your actions be used as an additional pretext and excuse for them to fight us, because this is not the proper time for such actions," Abbas said.

The Israelis sent forces into northern Gaza yesterday after Palestinian militants fired mortars at the Erez industrial zone next to the main Gaza-Israel checkpoint and rockets at Sderot, a town just outside the Gaza fence, wounding several Israelis. The military said the goal was to stop the rocket and mortar fire.

A Palestinian cameraman working for an Israeli TV station was shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers in northern Gaza, Palestinians and local media said. The military had no immediate comment.

The new raid was conducted as Israeli troops pulled out of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, ending a three-day operation to target militants firing the homemade rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements.

The army said it killed 13 armed Palestinians during the three-day operation. Palestinian security officials put the number of dead at 11 and said nine were armed.

Israel is planning to pull out of Gaza in the summer, but violence is expected to escalate. Palestinian militants are trying to show they are forcing the Israelis out while Israel wants to deal a blow to the violent groups to keep them in check during the pullout and afterward.

When he presented his plan to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements and four from the West Bank, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel called it unilateral disengagement, refusing to coordinate with Arafat's Palestinian government.

That changed with Arafat's death Nov. 11. Israel signaled it would cooperate with Abbas but avoided open support to keep from embarrassing him.

Abbas has spoken out against violence and has called attacks against Israel a mistake. Israelis hope his embracing of militants in recent days is just a campaign ploy.

A poll released yesterday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research suggested that Abbas has 65 percent support and his nearest rival, prodemocracy activist Mustafa Barghouti, has only 22 percent. The other five candidates have combined support of 5 percent of voters, while 8 percent remained undecided.

The poll, conducted Dec. 30-31, questioned 1,319 Palestinians and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Despite the poll numbers, Abbas still is scrambling for support. Analysts say he needs to win the election in a landslide of at least 60 percent to tap into the emotional support and loyalty Arafat enjoyed.

Over the past few days, Abbas, dressed in a suit and tie, has been touring squalid refugee camps, embracing armed militants and riding, visibly uncomfortable, on their shoulders.

At a rally yesterday in a basketball stadium in the central Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, Abbas told thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of gunmen, he would not abandon them.

"We say to our fighting brothers who 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.

Mahmoud Mashabat, head of a small local militant group, embraced Abbas and kissed him.

Residents of the Khan Younis camp who fled their homes at the start of Israel's raid in Friday began streaming back early yesterday.

Sifting through the rubble, women and children gathered blankets, clothes, toys, and kitchenware in an attempt to salvage something from the destruction.

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