Abbas pitches for hardliners with talk of 'Zionist enemy'

Mahmoud Abbas made an unabashed pitch to a boisterous rally of the Fatah faithful last night after angering Ariel Sharon's ministers by referring to Israel as the "Zionist enemy" for the killing of seven young Palestinians in Gaza.

Mahmoud Abbas made an unabashed pitch to a boisterous rally of the Fatah faithful last night after angering Ariel Sharon's ministers by referring to Israel as the "Zionist enemy" for the killing of seven young Palestinians in Gaza.

The remark by the PLO chairman and favourite to succeed Yasser Arafat focused fresh attention on his awkward, self-imposed task of condemning militant violence while courting the support of the armed factions ahead of Sunday's presidential election.

After tank-fire killed the Palestinians in Beit Lahiya, in the north of the strip, Mr Abbas told a gathering of southern Gaza supporters: "We came to you today, while we are praying for the souls of the martyrs who were killed today by the shells of the Zionist enemy."

The tank-fire, which killed six members of the same family, named Raban, aged between 10 and 16, and another aged 22, was retaliation for Palestinian mortar attacks on the Erez industrial zone between Israel and Gaza that slightly wounded two Israeli civilians. The army said the shelling had been targeted at a militant, rocket-launching cell and that most of the Palestinians killed were members of Hamas's military wing.

The remark by Mr Abbas, who has consistently criticised the four-year-old armed intifada against Israel, was "intolerable and unacceptable" said Ehud Olmert, the deputy Israeli Prime Minister. Signifiying that any allowances made for Mr Abbas's language in the election period would not apply after polling day, he added: "After 9 January, we will relate to such comments and judge them differently than we do now."

Mr Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, later made a speech at a 2,000-strong rally of mainly party activists as but he did not repeat the remark, referring instead to "our brothers now killed in Gaza". He was frequently interrupted by chants of "Abu Mazen is shaking the ground" from young Fatah members. With a chequered keffiyeh round his neck, Mr Abbas invoked the memory of Yasser Arafat "the martyr" and said the late president could "rest secure" in the knowledge that "young Fatah will continue the march". The audience at the rally, a testament to the formidable power of Fatah's electoral machine, also held older men and women, a few with children, who sat impassively through the hubbub.

The hall was packed with hundreds of supporters but thinned out later as Mr Abbas was several times forced to pause by chants from the Fatah youth, many standing on chairs.

He repeated promises that the Palestinian leadership would not forget militants sought by the Israelis, and added: "We will ensure their rights to live an honourable life."

But Mr Abbas also reinforced his condemnation of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians as "useless", referring to the death of a woman and child in one attack and declaring: "If we are attacked we defend ourselves but we don't do something that will kill innocent people". He added: "Nobody will be above the law." Mr Abbas has refused a demand from armed factions in Gaza to apologise for his remarks on rocket attacks.

Mr Abbas repeated remarks, which have also irritated Israeli politicians, endorsing the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees to the homes their families left in the war of Israeli independence in 1948. But he stopped short of explicitly saying he will be demanding that all refugees will be free to return to their original homes inside Israel.

Mohammed Ishtiya, the director of Mr Abbas's campaign, has indicated that the PLO chairman's primary task immediately after being elected would be to continue a dialogue with the leadership of all the armed factions aimed at halting to violence, which would assist a return to the internationally agreed road map to peace.

Mr Ishtiya said that the campaign was trying to project Mr Abbas as a "statesman" rather than just a "candidate" for the presidency, while acknowledging that the 69-year-old Mr Abbas, long seen as a somewhat grey and bureaucratic, if venerable, member of the PLO hierarchy, was having to make the transition from "the man who was used to delivering lectures to one who delivers speeches".

In Ramallah, Ramsi Jaber, 32, dismissed accusations that Mr Abbas was a "man in a suit", ill-fitted to lead a hitherto revolutionary movement. "[Arafat was] a military man and a symbol for the Palestinian people. Abu Mazen is a politician which makes it right for him to wear a suit. Do you expect him to negotiate carrying a Kalashnikov?"

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