Tue, Jan 04, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Abbas calls for end to rocket fire

HOMEMADE HAZARDS Mahmoud Abbas, the leading candidate for Palestinian president, on Sunday asked militants to stop their barrages in the interests of peace

AP , GAZA CITY

A supporter of interim Palestinian leader and presidential front-runner Mahmoud Abbas holds a poster bearing the picture of Abbas and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a rally in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Israel pulled its tanks and troops out of northern Gaza a few hours after they went in to stop rocket and mortar fire at Israeli villages, and Mahmoud Abbas, the leading candidate for Palestinian president, called on militants to halt the barrages.

The raid on Sunday was a quick feint, an Israeli attempt to make a show of force rather than take over Gaza territory to move its villages out of rocket range.

So far none of Israel's tactics have deterred militants from firing their homemade mortars and rockets in both northern and southern Gaza, raising fears of spiraling violence if Israel decides to mount a large-scale invasion to halt the launches.

In the hours before a dozen tanks crossed into Gaza, an Israeli was critically wounded in a mortar attack on an industrial park at a Gaza crossing, and several rockets fell in Sderot, an Israeli town just outside Gaza, damaging houses.

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

Abbas was in northern Gaza as the drama developed on Sunday.

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.

However, he also criticized the rocket fire. "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.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said it was "disturbing" to see Abbas carried aloft by Palestinian militants instead of working to stop violence.

"If they don't move in that direction, then we're going to be stuck again. So we need reformed Palestinian leadership that deals with this terrorist threat," Powell told NBC television's Meet the Press.

A poll released on Sunday showed Abbas with the backing of two-thirds of his people, three times the support of his nearest rival before a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat. But the candidate with the gray, bureaucratic image spent the day courting those who have disparaged him in the past -- young militants.

Israel is planning to pull out of Gaza in the summer, but violence is expected to escalate. Palestinian militants are trying to show that 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, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called it "unilateral disengagement," refus-ing to coordinate with Arafat's Palestinian government.

That changed with Arafat's death on 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, and Israelis are hoping that his embracing of militants in recent days is just a campaign ploy.

A poll released on Sunday, conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found Abbas with 65 percent support, and his nearest rival, pro-democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti, had only 22 percent. The other five candidates had combined support of 5 percent of the voters and 8 percent remained undecided.

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