Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas told hundreds of armed militants at a campaign rally in Gaza yesterday that he would never abandon them, but would fight to protect them from Israeli raids.
Abbas' comments were his latest gesture to Palestinian gunmen -- viewed as resistance heroes by Palestinians and as terrorists by Israel -- whose support he has courted during his campaign to replace Yasser Arafat in the Jan. 9 elections.
Meanwhile, Israeli troops pulled out of Khan Younis in southern Gaza early yesterday, ending a three-day operation to target militants who fired homemade rockets and mortar rounds at Israeli 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 of them were armed.
Also yesterday, Palestinians in northern Gaza fired two mortar rounds at a factory in the Erez industrial zone on the border between Gaza and Israel, wounding two Israeli civilians, one seriously, rescue services said.
A homemade rocket fired from Gaza lightly wounded a woman in the Israeli town of Sderot earlier yesterday.
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 army said the operation was meant to stop rocket attacks into Israel.
The raids came as candidates campaigned in Gaza just days before the Palestinian elections.
Though Abbas is the overwhelming favorite to win the vote, he lacks Arafat's charisma and street credentials.
Even if he posts a strong victory, he will need to consolidate his support among the population and get militants to back his new government.
Israel has demanded a crackdown on violent groups, which Abbas has repeatedly rejected.
In an interview Saturday, Abbas said Palestinians owe the gunmen a debt for their resistance against the Israeli occupation and they have a duty to protect them from Israeli attacks.
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 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 is established, Israeli settlements are dismantled and Palestinian refugees get 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.