A prominent West Bank gunman carried a smiling Mahmoud Abbas on his shoulders yesterday, endorsing the presidential candidate and prompting questions of whether Abbas is playing...

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JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — A prominent West Bank gunman carried a smiling Mahmoud Abbas on his shoulders yesterday, endorsing the presidential candidate and prompting questions of whether Abbas is playing campaign politics or identifying with violent groups.

Abbas, the interim Palestinian leader, is the front-runner in a Jan. 9 election for Palestinian Authority president, and the world is closely monitoring his statements on how he will deal with Palestinian militants.

In a related development, Israeli Vice Premier Ehud Olmert told a newspaper that after Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer, further pullouts will be necessary. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon distanced himself from Olmert’s remarks.

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And in southern Gaza, Israeli forces expanded a sweep through the Khan Younis refugee camp, where militants fire mortars and rockets at nearby Jewish settlements. After nightfall, four gunmen were killed in an Israeli air strike, witnesses and Palestinian security said.

Five Palestinians — three gunmen and two civilians — were killed in earlier clashes.

The highlight of Abbas’ visit to the Jenin refugee camp next to the northern West Bank town of Jenin was his encounter with a group of gunmen led by Zakaria Zubeidi, the local leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a violent group with ties to Abbas’ ruling Fatah party.

Zubeidi, who is idolized in the camp and wanted by Israel for organizing attacks and sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities, took center stage in welcoming Abbas to the camp. He and other militants hoisted aloft Abbas, who smiled and waved to about 3,000 Palestinians gathered around.

Abbas won Zubeidi’s ringing endorsement. After Abbas left the stage, Zubeidi, with gunmen firing in the air, warned that he would deal with anyone who tried to challenge the elected Palestinian leadership.

Israel has been quietly backing Abbas, considering him a moderate who has called attacks against Israelis a mistake. However, with the election less than two weeks away, and Abbas constantly referring to the late Yasser Arafat as his guide and associating with militants like Zubeidi, some Israelis are having second thoughts.

However, Palestinians close to Abbas say the visit to Jenin and the pro-Arafat rhetoric are just campaign moves. Abbas, 69, Arafat’s longtime deputy, lacks Arafat’s charisma and appeal and has the image of a soft bureaucrat — a perception he needs to toughen in order to win support from young Palestinians.

Palestinian analysts say Abbas needs to win the election in a landslide to capture even part of the emotional backing Arafat had.

Aide Ahmed Subah said Abbas “has a program and he’s explaining his program to his audience,” varying the message accordingly. The “real” Abbas is intent on “ending the Israeli occupation through peaceful negotiations, attaining security for Palestinian citizens and achieving reform and development,” Subah said.

In political developments yesterday, Sharon and the moderate Labor Party came closer to setting up a new governing team by agreeing on a title for Labor leader Shimon Peres, who will become Sharon’s second vice premier. Sharon needs Labor in his Cabinet to restore his parliamentary majority and assure approval of his pullout plan.

The other vice premier, Olmert, told The Jerusalem Post that after that pullout, additional Jewish settlements in the West Bank will be removed, even if Israel is not involved in peace talks with the Palestinians.

“There is no option of sitting and doing nothing. Israel’s interest requires a disengagement on a wider scale than what will happen as part of the current disengagement plan,” Olmert told the Post. Otherwise, he said, Israel would face pressure to pull out of all of the West Bank.

Sharon’s office said there was no such plan.