Interim Palestinian leader Mah-moud Abbas, the front-runner in upcoming presidential elections, received a loud ovation from thousands of supporters at his first public rally on Tuesday, generating some excitement in an otherwise placid campaign.
The rally came as Palestinian election officials announced anti-fraud safeguards for the Jan. 9 vote, saying voters will be marked with indelible ink and ballot boxes will be sealed.
Also Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip suffered a setback when a parliamentary committee failed to approve a set of guidelines governing the evacuation. While the vote isn't expected to disrupt the withdrawal, which is to begin in July, officials said it would complicate preparations.
The campaign speech to several thousand supporters at a soccer stadium in this West Bank town was an important test for Abbas, a soft-spoken bureaucrat who prefers to avoid large crowds.
Although he is favored to win the presidential vote, Abbas lacks the popular appeal of Yasser Arafat, and the warm reception he received as he entered the stadium gave his candidacy a boost of legitimacy. Arafat died on Nov. 11 in a French hospital.
Abbas echoed what are shaping up to be the themes of his campaign: a pledge to continue Arafat's struggle for Palestinian independence, a call to achieve this goal through peaceful negotiations and a plea for Palestinian unity.
"We are all children of this nation. We must say no to Palestinian fighting and no to internal conflict," he said, prompting cheers from the crowd.
Abbas also said his people would "not rest" until they have an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital. He also called for resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with a 1948 UN resolution that includes return of refugees to their homes in Israel -- a deal-breaker for the Israelis.
"We choose peace negotiations as the path toward our rights," he said. "We do not want more than our rights."
Palestinian election organizers announced plans to prevent fraud in first presidential election in nine years.
Ammar Dwaik, a top official in the Central Election commission, said voters' hands will be stamped with indelible ink, and ballot boxes will be locked with numbered seals.
"We made every effort possible to make sure that there will be no double voting, no fraud," he said.
About 80 international observers will watch polling stations in the West Bank and Gaza.
The 1996 election was held without major disruptions or allegations of fraud. Arafat won by a landslide, defeating a relatively unknown social worker.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, about 80 gunmen, many of them masked, marched in support of Abbas on Tuesday, firing rifles in the air.
Israel has quietly backed Abbas, who is considered a moderate, and has signaled it is ready to coordinate next year's Gaza pullout with him after the vote.