Abbas assails 'Zionist enemy' after tank kills 7
The moderate frontrunner in the race for Palestinian president called Israel the "Zionist enemy" Tuesday after an Israeli tank killed seven Palestinian youths in a Gaza strawberry field.
Mahmoud Abbas's use of language usually confined to militants drew swift condemnation from Israel, whose army said it had targeted a mortar squad and expressed regret for any loss of innocent life.
Abbas, who is seeking to win over militants opposed to his calls for a cease-fire and peace talks over a Palestinian state, spoke in Gaza while campaigning for the Jan. 9 vote to pick a successor for Yasser Arafat.
Israel's army said it had targeted militants who had crept into the strawberry patch and fired mortar bombs into a nearby Jewish settlement, wounding two people. The army commander in north Gaza expressed regret "if civilians were indeed hurt."
The field, where the youths had been harvesting strawberries, was spattered with blood and body parts. Thousands of people joined a funeral march for the seven later Tuesday.
"We are praying for the souls of our martyrs who fell today to the shells of the Zionist enemy," Abbas told a rally in the south Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, a hotbed of militants.
It was his first known use of a phrase favored by Islamist radicals sworn to Israel's destruction.
Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's deputy condemned Abbas's reference. "Without a doubt, what (Abbas) said was intolerable and unacceptable and it cannot serve as a basis for any future cooperation," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert said.
Abbas, 69, long known as a pragmatic Palestinian nationalist, has revived peace hopes since Arafat's death by condemning militant violence in favor of talks with Israel.
TANK FIRE ABORTS ABBAS VISIT TO WOUNDED
Abbas later tried to visit the wounded in a Beit Lahiya hospital but drove away without getting out of his car because of tank bursts nearby after a rocket volley by militants into Israel, which caused no casualties.
"This will not bring peace for anyone. If such aggression continues we will not be able to engage in a peace process," Abbas told reporters, referring to the killing of the youths.
"But I also condemn all pointless (mortar and rocket) actions happening here and there," he said. "These actions are wrong and I will not apologize for (saying) that."
Palestinian officials said Israeli military operations in Gaza threatened to disrupt the election. Israel says it is trying to stop intensifying mortar and rocket fire by militants who have spurned Abbas's call for restraint.
Later Tuesday Israeli tanks and troops pushed into the fringes of Gaza City, sparking clashes with militants that killed one of them and wounded seven people, witnesses said.
Militants are trying to portray Israel's decision to evacuate settlers from Gaza later this year as a retreat under fire. Palestinians want to set up a state in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In his campaign, Abbas has wooed militants who previously labeled him a pushover for Israel by vowing not to veer from Arafat's goal of total Israeli withdrawal from occupied lands and praising the gunmen as "freedom fighters."