A prominent West Bank gunman carried a smiling Mahmoud Abbas on his shoulders Thursday, endorsing the presidential candidate and prompting questions of whether Abbas is playing campaign politics or identifying with violent groups.
Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader, is the front-runner in a Jan. 9 election for Palestinian Authority president, and his statements on how he will deal with Palestinian militants are closely monitored by the world.
In a related development, Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told a newspaper that after Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer, further pullouts will be necessary. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon distanced himself from Olmert’s remarks.
In southern Gaza, Israeli forces expanded a sweep through the Khan Younis refugee camp, where militants fire mortars and rockets at nearby Jewish settlements. After nightfall, four gunmen were killed in an Israeli airstrike, witnesses and Palestinian security said. The military said the air force fired at four gunmen and hit them.
Five Palestinians — three gunmen and two civilians — were killed in earlier clashes.
Al Aqsa leader welcomes Abbas
The highlight of Abbas’ visit to the Jenin refugee camp next to the northern West Bank town of Jenin was his encounter with a group of gunmen led by Zakaria Zubeidi, the local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group with ties to Abbas’ ruling Fatah party.
Zubeidi, who is idolized in the camp for his swagger and wanted by Israel for organizing attacks and sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities, took center stage in welcoming Abbas to the camp. Jenin was the scene of heavy fighting during an Israeli incursion in 2002 that followed one of the bombings.
Zubeidi and other gunmen hoisted aloft Abbas, who smiled and waved to about 3,000 Palestinians gathered around. Some in the crowd were armed.
Abbas won Zubeidi’s ringing endorsement. After Abbas left the stage, Zubeidi, with gunmen firing in the air, warned that he would deal with anyone who tried to challenge the elected Palestinian leadership. Then Zubeidi escorted Abbas’ car out of the camp.
Analysts: Landslide victory needed
Palestinian analysts say Abbas needs to win the election in a landslide to capture even part of the emotional backing the late Yasser Arafat had, possibly explaining his trip to the camp and embrace of Zubeidi.
In his address, Abbas referred to a 2002 battle in which 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed, recalling that Arafat called the camp “Jeningrad.” The crowd responded with a healthy cheer.
“When we demand security,” Abbas said, “we demand it for all our citizens, including our wanted brothers who also deserve a life of security and safety,” he said, in a reference to Zubeidi and his group, evoking another big cheer.
Abbas also pressed other themes — restoring the rule of law and negotiating a peace deal with Israel.
Israel has been quietly backing Abbas, considering him a moderate who has called attacks against Israelis a mistake. Israelis contrast him with Arafat, whom they shunned, charging he was involved in terrorism.
Second thoughts among Israelis
However, with the election less than two weeks away, and Abbas constantly referring to Arafat as his guide and associating with militants like Zubeidi, some Israelis are having second thoughts.
Officials in Sharon’s office refused to comment, but the chairman of the influential parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Yuval Steinitz, counseled caution about seeing Abbas as a ticket to a quick peace agreement.
“The meeting with Zakaria Zubeidi, an accomplished and proud terrorist, is one more cause for worry,” Steinitz said. Disillusioned by failure of the interim peace accords Israel and the Palestinians signed in the 1990s, Steinitz added, “we have learned that we cannot take such worrying signals lightly.”
However, Palestinians close to Abbas say the visit to Jenin and the pro-Arafat rhetoric are just campaign moves. Abbas, 69, Arafat’s longtime deputy, lacks Arafat’s charisma and appeal and has the image of a soft bureaucrat — a perception he needs to toughen in order to win support from young Palestinians caught up in the struggle against Israel.
Aide Ahmed Subah said Abbas “has a program and he’s explaining his program to his audience,” varying the message accordingly. The “real Abu Mazen,” Abbas’ nickname, is intent on “ending the Israeli occupation through peaceful negotiations, attaining security for Palestinian citizens and achieving reform and development,” Subah said.
Israeli analyst Dan Scheuftan warned that Abbas’ embracing of Zubeidi might backfire, whatever his intentions.
“If he believes that by associating with Zubeidi, he gets control of him,” Scheuftan said, “this is not the case.”
Sharon puts new team in place
In political developments Thursday, Sharon and the moderate Labor Party came closer to setting up a new governing team by agreeing on a title for Labor leader Shimon Peres, who will become Sharon’s second vice premier.
Sharon needs Labor in his Cabinet to restore his parliamentary majority and assure approval of his pullout plan.
The other vice premier, Olmert, told The Jerusalem Post that after that pullout, additional Jewish settlements in the West Bank will be removed, even if Israel is not involved in peace talks with the Palestinians.
“There is no option of sitting and doing nothing. Israel’s interest requires a disengagement on a wider scale than what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan,” Olmert told the Post. Otherwise, he said, Israel would face pressure to pull out of all of the West Bank.
Sharon’s office said there was no such plan. “The prime minister has not changed his policy and the plan for disengagement. There is nothing beyond that,” Sharon aide Raanan Gissin said.