DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip – Mahmoud Abbas (search), the leading candidate for Palestinian president, called on militants Sunday to stop firing rockets at Israel, as Israeli tanks and troops massed in northern Gaza in response to the latest barrage.
A poll released Sunday showed Abbas with the backing of two-thirds of his people, three times the support of his nearest rival before a Jan. 9 election to replace Yasser Arafat (search). Still, the candidate with the gray, bureaucratic image spent the day courting those who have disparaged him in the past — young militants.
As Israeli tanks gathered nearby, Abbas expressed his support for the gunmen — viewed as resistance heroes by Palestinians and as terrorists by Israel — at a campaign rally at a school in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya (search).
However, he also criticized the rocket fire.
"Don't let your actions be used as an additional pretext and excuse for them [Israel] to fight us, because this is not the proper time for such actions," Abbas said.
The Israelis sent forces into northern Gaza on Sunday after Palestinian militants fired mortars at the Erez industrial zone next to the main Gaza-Israel checkpoint and rockets at Sderot, a town just outside the Gaza fence, wounding several Israelis.
The military said the goal was to stop the rocket and mortar fire. But after nightfall, the military pulled back to positions overlooking northern Gaza, the military said.
A Palestinian cameraman working for an Israeli TV station was shot and wounded by Israeli soldiers in northern Gaza, Palestinians and local media said. The military had no immediate comment.
The new raid came as Israeli troops pulled out of Khan Younis in southern Gaza, ending a three-day operation to target militants firing the homemade rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements.
The army said it killed 13 armed Palestinians during the three-day operation. Palestinian security officials put the number of dead at 11 and said nine of them were armed.
Israel is planning to pull out of Gaza in the summer, but violence is expected to escalate. Palestinian militants are trying to show they are forcing the Israelis out, while Israel wants to deal a blow to the violent groups to keep them in check during the pullout and afterward.
When he presented his plan to evacuate all 21 Gaza settlements and four from the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called it "unilateral disengagement," refusing to coordinate with Arafat's Palestinian government.
That changed with Arafat's death Nov. 11. Israel signaled it would cooperate with Abbas but avoided open support to keep from embarrassing him. Abbas has spoken out against violence and has called attacks against Israel a mistake, and Israelis hope his embracing of militants in recent days is just a campaign ploy.
A poll released Sunday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found Abbas with 65 percent support and his nearest rival, pro-democracy activist Mustafa Barghouti, with only 22 percent. The other five candidates had combined support of 5 percent of voters, while 8 percent remained undecided.
The poll, conducted Dec. 30-31, questioned 1,319 Palestinians and quoted a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Despite the poll numbers, Abbas still is scrambling for support. Analysts believe he needs to win the election in a landslide of at least 60 percent of votes to tap into the emotional support and loyalty Arafat enjoyed.
So over the past few days, Abbas, dressed in a suit and tie, has been touring squalid refugee camps, embracing armed militants and riding, visibly uncomfortable, on their shoulders.
At a rally Sunday in a basketball stadium in the central Gaza town of Deir el-Balah, Abbas told thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of gunmen, he would not abandon them.
"We say to our fighting brothers who are wanted by Israel, we will not rest until you can enjoy a life of security, peace, and dignity, so you can live in your country with total freedom," he said. Mahmoud Mashabat, head of a small local militant group, embraced Abbas and kissed him.
Residents of the Khan Younis camp who fled their homes at the start of Israel's raid in Friday began streaming back early Sunday. Sifting through the rubble, women and children gathered blankets, clothes, toys and kitchenware in an attempt to salvage something from the destruction.
"Is this the message for the New Year? We thought the New Year would bring us hope of security, but it looks like we are going to face another year of suffering," said Naima Tarourtri, 52, whose home was destroyed in the operation.