EL-BIREH, West Bank, Dec. 25 -- Candidates vying to succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority kicked off a two-week election campaign Saturday with rallies and speeches that largely invoked the deceased leader's legacy and vowed to continue his campaign for statehood.
In a flurry of events that were by turns somber, spirited and soggy, seven candidates sought support for their bids to fill the position that was left vacant with Arafat's death last month. Many Palestinians and Israelis, as well as a variety of world leaders, have identified the Jan. 9 election as a pivotal juncture in the on-again, off-again process aimed at forging peace in the region.
Mahmoud Abbas is favored to win the Jan. 9 election.
Mahmoud Abbas, who was chosen to take Arafat's place as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and is the heavy favorite in the presidential race, told several hundred supporters at a rally in this West Bank town that "it is true that Yasser Arafat cannot be replaced. He has left a void inside us."
But Abbas, the nominee of Arafat's ruling Fatah movement, pledged he would carry on with the quest for an end to Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, as well as the release of political prisoners in Israeli custody.
A few hours earlier, Mustafa Barghouti, whom opinion polls have identified as Abbas's closest challenger, opened his campaign by laying a wreath beside Arafat's grave in nearby Ramallah. "This morning, from the tomb of the late president . . . we humbly begin the campaign," Barghouti said at the end of his brief visit to Arafat's presidential compound, which was not open to the public.
Barghouti, 50, a physician and human rights activist, stressed that his campaign was being "launched on the same principles that he sacrificed his life for." But he also suggested that he and his Palestinian National Initiative party offered voters an alternative to Abbas and Fatah, calling for "new leadership that is capable of understanding the people's needs."
Toward day's end, Tayseer Khalid of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine spoke to several dozen people in East Jerusalem's Hakawati Theater, lambasting the Palestinians' current leadership and denouncing countries he said were trying to impose a peace settlement that would favor Israel.
"To the Americans, the British, the Israelis and others, everything is finalized. But we haven't voted yet," Khalid said before heading out into the afternoon drizzle to canvas the neighborhood, accompanied by a handful of supporters and journalists.
Palestinians have not voted for president of their ruling authority since 1996, when Arafat swept to a landslide victory following the 1993 Oslo peace accords. But Israeli-Palestinian relations steadily deteriorated after Arafat took office, with Palestinians taking up arms in 2000 and Israel isolating Arafat at his Ramallah compound from 2002 until last month, when he was flown to Paris for medical treatment and died two weeks later.
Arafat's demise -- coming at a time when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is pushing forward with a plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip next year -- has created what Sharon, President Bush and others have called a rare opening for peace. Sharon considered Arafat a terrorist and refused to deal with him during negotiations conducted under the U.S.-brokered peace plan known as the "road map."
Instead, Israel and the United States tried to circumvent Arafat by working with Abbas, chosen by Arafat as the first Palestinian prime minister last year. Sharon, Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and others have expressed hope that Palestinians will elect Abbas as their next president and that the road map process can be revived.
While framing himself as the heir to Arafat during a 40-minute speech delivered Saturday in a hall decorated with posters depicting the two men together, Abbas nevertheless veered away from Arafat's past positions on some key points.
He echoed the former leader in calling for the return of land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, including annexed East Jerusalem, and demanded that Jewish settlements in the West Bank be dismantled. But he also declared that resistance to Israeli occupation should be carried out through civil disobedience, echoing his statement two weeks ago that the use of violence during the current uprising, which began more than four years ago, had been a costly mistake.
"We don't want to attack anyone, and we don't want anyone to attack us," Abbas said. Without specifically naming Israel, he maintained: "We respect the international legitimacy of the other side."
Abbas cited municipal elections held Thursday in 26 Palestinian towns and villages as evidence that "we are a democratic oasis in the region. There's not just one," he said, alluding to Israel.
Though the release of official results from the municipal votes was delayed until Sunday, party officials in several towns reported strong showings by the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas. The Associated Press reported that Hamas, which is boycotting the presidential election, won control of 14 town councils.
Researcher Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.