JERICHO, West Bank -- Interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner in upcoming presidential elections, received a loud ovation from thousands of supporters at his first public rally yesterday, generating some excitement for the low-key politician seeking to replace the late Yasser Arafat.
The rally came as Palestinian election officials announced anti-fraud safeguards for the Jan. 9 vote. Ammar Dwaik, a top official in the Central Election commission, said voters' hands will be stamped with indelible ink, and ballot boxes will be locked with numbered seals. "We made every effort possible to make sure that there will be no double voting, no fraud," he said.
About 80 international observers will watch polling stations in the West Bank and Gaza.
Also yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip suffered a setback when a parliamentary committee failed to approve a set of guidelines governing the evacuation. While the vote isn't expected to disrupt the withdrawal, which is set to begin in July, officials said it would complicate preparations.
For Abbas, the campaign speech to several thousand supporters at a soccer stadium in the West Bank town of Jericho was an important test. Although he is favored to win the presidential vote, Abbas lacks the popular appeal of the iconic leader Arafat, and the warm reception he received as he entered the stadium gave his candidacy a boost of legitimacy. Arafat died on Nov. 11 in a French hospital.
Abbas echoed what are shaping up to be the themes of his campaign: a pledge to continue Arafat's struggle for Palestinian independence, a call to achieve this goal through peaceful negotiations, and a plea for Palestinian unity. "We are all children of this nation. We must say no to Palestinian fighting and no to internal conflict," he said, prompting cheers from the crowd.
Abbas also said his people would "not rest" until they have an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital. He also called for addressing the Palestinian refugee problem in accordance with a 1948 UN resolution that includes return of refugees to their homes in Israel -- a proposal rejected by the Israelis.
"We choose peace negotiations as the path toward our rights," Abbas said. "We do not want more than our rights."