Sunday, January 2, 2005

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — On a weekend campaign swing through the Gaza Strip, Mahmoud Abbas alternately criticized Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and pledged not to forcefully disarm the militants who fired them.

The remarks, made amid new Israeli military incursions into the volatile strip, highlighted the delicate balancing act being played by the front-running presidential candidate as he lines up support a week before the Jan. 9 vote.

On Saturday, gun-toting militants carried Mr. Abbas on their shoulders through the southern border town of Rafah. Yesterday, he was in the northern Gaza Strip — an area being patrolled by Israeli tanks — demanding that the militants halt their Qassam rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

“I say to them, this is not the time for this kind of attack,” Mr. Abbas said in the Jabaliya refugee district, just a few miles from Beit Hanoun, where Israeli troops were hunting for the groups behind the attacks on the Israeli town of Sderot and a nearby kibbutz.

Ignoring the political risks of condemning the rocket attacks at a time when Israeli armored units are patrolling Gaza’s refugee camps, Mr. Abbas appears to be counting on the fact that many residents are weary of the fighting.

But while he criticizes the militarization of the Palestinian uprising, Mr. Abbas clearly is not ready for a head-on confrontation with Hamas or with militias from his own Fatah party.

“You have to give some allowance for Abu Mazen because he is not yet the president,” said Palestinian human rights activist Eyad Sarraj, using a popular nickname for Mr. Abbas.

“He is not supported by a popular base. Today, he is playing with words. He is not living the life of the conflict here.”

To the residents of Gaza, where murals depicting militants line roads that have been torn up by Israeli tanks, Mr. Abbas comes across as an intellectual peace activist, Mr. Sarraj said.

Although opinion polls indicate he could garner as much as two thirds of the popular vote, the long-time deputy to Yasser Arafat understands that he needs to establish more rapport with the Palestinian street.

On Saturday, Mr. Abbas told the BBC that he would not use force against Hamas and would seek an agreement on a cease-fire with Israel instead. He said fighting among Palestinians is a “red line” that must not be crossed.

Hamas is boycotting the presidential race, leaving Mr. Abbas without a formidable challenger. The one-man race raises the possibility that the turnout could be lighter than the 80 percent participation in last week’s round of municipal voting.

That would detract from the popular mandate Mr. Abbas hopes will give him leverage in seeking peace talks with Israel and reforming Palestinian government.

Outside a grocery store on the outskirts of Gaza City over the weekend, supporters of Fatah’s militant wing, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, arranged a local rally in support of Mr. Abbas’ candidacy. The stage was decorated with the brigade’s yellow banner, featuring a hand grenade between crossed machine guns.

“We want to make a celebration,” said Ali Nassma, a 19-year-old Fatah activist, after speaking to the crowd. Mr. Nassma said the rally would invoke the memory of Palestinian “martyrs,” as well as that of Mr. Arafat, who died Nov. 11.

But in the streets of Jabaliya’s outdoor market, several Palestinians said they would not vote Sunday, questioning whether the election could end Israeli incursions and alleviate rampant poverty.

Even though Hamas is not contesting the election, it claims it will have a veto on any future policy decision regarding peace negotiations with Israel.

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