JERUSALEM – Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Saturday that only the Palestinian people could determine their leaders, in response to comments made by Secretary of State Colin Powell that the Palestinians needed "a new and different leadership."
Palestinian officials blamed U.S. support of Israel's military actions in Palestinian areas for preventing them from going ahead with elections planned for Jan. 20.
On Thursday, Powell said peace in the Middle East would require "from the Palestinians a new and different leadership, new institutions, and an end to terror and violence."
"With our friends in the region and the international community we are working to bring about a lasting peace based on President Bush's vision of two states living side by side in peace and security," Powell told the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo accused the U.S. administration of failing to pressure Israel to withdraw from Palestinian areas because elections could yield a renewed mandate for Arafat.
"The Palestinian people are willing to make a change in the leadership, but these changes should be through elections, democratic and fair elections," Abed Rabbo told reporters.
He said the Jan. 20 date originally set for the vote was becoming increasingly unlikely because of Israel's military presence in Palestinian towns and severe travel restrictions imposed on their citizens.
Israel has said it will not withdraw from the Palestinian areas while militants threaten to continue their attacks against Israelis.
Also Saturday, two Israelis were injured when Palestinian gunmen opened fire at two cars near the Jewish settlement of Shilo, about nine miles north of Jerusalem, military officials said.
In the West Bank town of Nablus, Israeli troops clashed with students at An-Najah University after closing the institution down, Palestinians said. Three students were slightly injured. The army said a curfew had been imposed in the town but did not immediately comment on the university's closure.
In the Gaza Strip, army bulldozers destroyed two buildings that housed 16 Palestinians near the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, Palestinian security officials said. Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied houses were destroyed and said bulldozers had leveled farmland that militants had used to launch mortar shells at the nearby settlement.
On Friday the militant Hamas group marked its 15th anniversary with a rally in southern Gaza, led by armed militiamen and bombers-in-waiting threatening new attacks on Israel.
At least 30,000 supporters crammed into a stadium in the town of Khan Younis, shaking their fists in the air and chanting "God is great" as one of the group's founders, Ahmed Nimer Hamdan, said the fight against Israel would continue.
Hamas fighters "will not lay down their weapons and will not stop firing their bullets until the end of this battle," Hamdan said.
The Islamic militant group was founded in December 1987, just days after the outbreak of the first Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Since then, the group has carried out scores of shootings and bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis. It opposes peace talks with Israel and has refused to recognize the Palestinian Authority.
Also Friday Israeli troops shot and killed the leader of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank town of Tulkarem during a raid in the Nur Shams refugee camp, Palestinian security officials said.
Hamdi Darduk, head of Palestinian Intelligence in the town said the militant leader, Tareq Abed Rabbo, was killed by troops who discovered him hiding in a closet. The Israeli military said Abed Rabbo was shot and killed by troops attempting to arrest him.
Another six Palestinians were wounded during the raid, Palestinian officials said.