Abbas Urges Israel to Tear Down Fence

Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) made a campaign run Wednesday through West Bank towns living in the shadow of Israel's separation barrier, urging Israel to tear down the huge structure that he said would never help peace.

Abbas, the front-runner in the Jan. 9 presidential election, made the appeal in Tulkarem (search), a town of 40,000 on the line between Israel and the West Bank, blocked on two sides by the 25-foot-high concrete slabs of the barrier. Israel began building it to stop a wave of Palestinian suicide bombers who were infiltrating unhindered from the West Bank.

"I say to our neighbors ... no fence will bring peace or bring you security," Abbas told a rally at a Tulkarem stadium just 500 yards from the barrier.

Meanwhile, in Gaza early Thursday, about 10 Israeli tanks entered the Khan Younis (search) refugee camp in what the military said was a mission to stop militants from firing rockets and mortars at nearby Jewish settlements and Israeli army bases. Palestinians said Israeli tank fire killed three gunmen. Military officials said the air force fired missiles at two groups of militants.

The complex of walls, fences, trenches, barbed wire and electronic devices, still under construction, roughly follows the "Green Line (search)," the 1949 cease-fire line that divided Israel from the West Bank until 1967, when Israel captured the territory.

In some places, however, the barrier is designed to dip into the West Bank to include Jewish settlements, taking West Bank land and cutting Palestinians off from their farmland and services.

Palestinians say if the Israelis want to build a wall, they should keep it on their own side of the "Green Line." But Israel doesn't recognize the cease-fire line as a border.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cites a letter earlier this year from President Bush, saying that borders should take into account population changes — a reference to Israeli settlement blocs.

International opinion about the barrier, however, almost unanimously backs the Palestinians. In July, the U.N. world court ruled the structure is illegal and must be dismantled. Israel ignored the advisory ruling.

The barrier, expected to run about 425 miles, is about one-third complete. Israeli courts have delayed construction, delivering opinions forcing planners to move it closer to the Green Line to reduce hardships on Palestinians.

Several thousand people in Tulkarem greeted Abbas warmly. Many held pictures of Abbas and Yasser Arafat and cheered for both.

Later, Abbas traveled to the nearby town of Qalqiliya, which is almost entirely cut off by the barrier. Abbas toured the wall and addressed a crowd of several hundred supporters.

"We hope the Israelis will take the wall down," he said. "If the Israelis want to reach a fair and just peace, they will take down the wall."

Though polls show Abbas is far ahead of his only serious challenger, Mustafa Barghouti, Abbas does not command the respect of Arafat, the legendary leader who died Nov. 11.

On Wednesday, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small hard-line faction, endorsed Barghouti.

The announcement was made by the group's leader, Ahmed Saadat, who addressed a news conference by telephone from a Palestinian jail. Saadat is being held under U.S. and British supervision for his alleged role in the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001.

Barghouti said he was honored by the endorsement.

Palestinian experts say Abbas would need to win in a landslide to acquire the clout in his own Fatah faction to make significant political decisions, while the people are likely to accept him.

"The Palestinian people have accepted the election laws and will therefore accept its results, even if Abu Mazen gets only a small majority in the polls," said analyst Ali Jerbawi, referring to Abbas by his nickname.

But a narrow victory would not persuade Fatah, warned pollster Nader Said of Bir Zeit University. "The Fatah leadership will try to blackmail him, specifically stopping him from carrying out reforms," he said.