Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
November 11, 2009 - 1:00am

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Thousands of Palestinians turned out Wednesday for a rally here on the fifth anniversary of the death of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and to show support for his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently expressed an intention to retire.

The question mark hovering over his political future is shaking up Palestinian politics and places yet another block before any new peace talks. But Mr. Abbas, 74, spoke of a starting a new political battle and of perseverance in the pursuit of an independent Palestinian state.

He said that “on this occasion,” he did not want to talk about his “wish not to run in the upcoming elections.” Instead, in a 45-minute address to supporters of his Fatah movement, he focused on the tough challenges ahead and called for reconciliation with Hamas, the opposing Palestinian faction.

He said it was time for the Palestinians to reach their goal of an independent state, adding that “desperation will never reach into our hearts.”

He said that the Palestinians remained strong because of their “steadfastness” and the justice of their cause.

“The whole world supports a Palestinian state,” he said. “We are now embarking on a tough political battle,” he added, to set the borders of such a state and to resolve other core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like the status of Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian refugees.

He reiterated his stance that there would be no return to negotiations with Israel in the absence of a complete settlement freeze. And he called on Hamas to join forces in the Palestinian national endeavor and to accept an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal with Fatah.

Amid internal pressures and disappointment at the Obama administration’s failure to extract a freeze, Mr. Abbas announced last week that he would not compete for a second term as president in elections he had called for Jan. 24. But it is far from clear that the presidential and parliamentary elections will take place on time because Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, says it will not cooperate.

In recent days, aides to Mr. Abbas, who is considered a reliable and moderate leader by the West, suggested that without some diplomatic progress he might resign, leading to concerns that the Palestinian Authority could fall apart.

The rally took place in the grounds of the Mukata, the presidential headquarters in this West Bank city where Mr. Arafat became ill in 2004. He died in a Paris hospital, but his body was flown back here and buried in the compound amid frenzied scenes of adoration and chaos.

Mr. Abbas does not inspire the same passion among his followers, many of whom attribute much of his popularity and credibility to his long association with Mr. Arafat.

Naji Daraghmeh, who came to the rally from a village near Nablus in the northern West Bank, said, “I do not believe there are people who understand the Palestinian cause like those who worked by Arafat’s side.”

“We hope Abu Mazen will continue as our leader,” he added, referring to Mr. Abbas, “because he is from that group.”

A large vinyl balloon floated above the crowd with side-by-side portraits of Mr. Abbas and Mr. Arafat. Outside the Mukata, a huge banner with a full-length portrait of Mr. Abbas ran down a building, and posters pasted on the walls bore the words “We renew our support for Abu Mazen.”

Mr. Abbas’s authority has been limited to the West Bank since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. There were no rallies commemorating the anniversary of Mr. Arafat’s death in Gaza, illustrating the depth of the Palestinian schism.

Those who came out in support of Mr. Abbas in Ramallah seemed confused about what would happen if he were to leave office. Some said nobody could replace him, while others said there were many people who could, but none who had his political experience. Several also cast doubt on his threat to leave the political scene.

“If people back him, he will never leave,” said Nimeh Dalaysheh, who came from the nearby Jelazoun refugee camp with her toddler.

Mr. Daraghmeh, from the village near Nablus, said he thought that Mr. Abbas’s threat was meant mainly as a pressure tactic to try to force some diplomatic movement. “I doubt he will resign,” he said.


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