GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Mahmoud Abbas (search) rode on the shoulders of the West Bank's most famous gunman in a campaign stop in a refugee camp, raising questions about the true beliefs of the leading candidate in next month's Palestinian presidential elections.
In southern Gaza, two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli missile strike Friday, the second day of an army raid aimed at stopping Palestinian rocket fire from the Khan Younis (search) refugee camp at nearby Jewish settlements. In all, 12 Palestinians have been killed in the raid, hospital officials said.
During a visit to Jenin refugee camp on Thursday, Abbas rode on the shoulders of Zakaria Zubeidi, the local leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (search), a violent group with ties to Abbas' ruling Fatah party, prompting speculation as to whether he was playing campaign politics or identifying with violent groups.
Zubeidi and other gunmen hoisted Abbas onto their shoulders during his visit to the battered Jenin refugee camp, and the candidate smiled and waved.
Israel has been quietly backing Abbas, who is the front-runner in Jan. 9 presidential elections. Abbas, who has called attacks against Israelis a mistake, is seen as a moderate. Israelis contrast him with Arafat, whom they shunned, charging he was involved in terrorism.
However, with the election less than two weeks away, and Abbas repeatedly referring to Arafat as his guide and associating with militants like Zubeidi, some Israelis are having second thoughts.
Zubeidi is idolized in the camp for his swagger and wanted by Israel for organizing attacks and sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities. Jenin was the scene of heavy fighting during an Israeli incursion in 2002 that followed one of the bombings.
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.
Palestinian analysts say Abbas needs to win the election in a landslide to capture even part of the emotional backing Yasser Arafat had, possibly explaining his trip to the camp and embrace of Zubeidi.
In his address, Abbas referred to the 2002 battle, in which 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers were killed, recalling that Yasser Arafat called the camp "Jeningrad." The crowd responded with cheers.
"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.
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.
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.
On Friday, Israel said that a missile strike killed two Palestinian militants who were seen planting explosive devices near an Israeli military position.
Also Friday, a 16-year-old Palestinian died of wounds sustained the previous day, hospital officials said.
In recent weeks, Palestinian militants have intensified mortar fire on Jewish settlements, ahead of Israel's planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip this summer.
Palestinian militant groups are jockeying for power in the post-Israel era and want to portray the Israeli pullback as retreat under fire. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has warned that he is determined to stop the mortar attacks.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat condemned the Kahn Younis raid. "I believe that this escalation, one week before the presidential election is seriously undermining this election," he said.