Abbas to speak on behalf of the Palestinian people

Gunmen hoisted &to=http:// ' target=_blank>Mahmoud Abbas on their shoulders as thousands of Palestinians gave the presidential election frontrunner a hero's welcome Saturday in a Gaza refugee camp shattered by fighting with Israel.

Abbas, running to succeed Yasser Arafat in a Jan. 9 vote, has branded violence a mistake but has wooed the late leader's militant loyalists by upholding his goal of total Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands where Palestinians seek a state.

Some among the 100 black-clad militants with assault rifles lifted Abbas, dressed in a sober business suit, on to their shoulders. Then they carried him through a swirling crowd of thousands who greeted him to the sprawling Rafah &to=http:// ' target=_blank>refugee camp. They draped an Arafat-style keffiyeh (headdress) on Abbas and chanted in fealty, "With our blood and our souls we will redeem you, Abu Mazen," as they once did for Arafat. Large posters of Abbas and Arafat bedecked the camp, informs Reuters.

According to the BBC News, in Rafah, where scores of Palestinians have been killed in the four-year uprising, he praised the residents, those killed in fighting with Israel, and Palestinian militants on the run. On the 40th anniversary of his Fatah faction, Mr Abbas repeated his call for an independent Palestinian state in the &to=http:// ' target=_blank>West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

He condemned Israeli incursions into the nearby Khan Younis refugee camp. "We are committed to the peace process and they should be committed to calm in order to achieve peace," he said.

Israel has demanded that the Palestinians disarm militants as a condition for restarting peace talks. Abbas made no mention of a crackdown. But he said the armed militants are ready "to live within the society" if they are allowed to live in peace and security. "To remain wanted here and there, this is something no one could accept."

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