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Israel Steps Up Military Raids as Palestinian Candidates Campaign for Upcoming Election

Israel has been stepping up its military raids in the Gaza Strip with its troops killing 12 Palestinians in the past two days. The action comes as Palestinian presidential contenders campaign for the January 9 elections.

A missile fired from an unmanned Israeli drone killed two Palestinian militants in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis early Friday. The army says the men were planting bombs.

The Israeli military has stepped up its raids in southern Gaza and says the operation is aimed at stopping militants from firing rockets and mortars into nearby Jewish settlements.

In other violence, the army says its troops killed two militants during a shootout in the West Bank town of Nablus.

Meanwhile, Palestinian presidential candidates are pressing their campaigns to succeed Yasser Arafat in January 9 elections.

Front-runner Mahmoud Abbas will shortly take his campaign to Gaza. On Thursday, he received a rousing welcome in the West Bank and an endorsement from Zakaria Zubeidi, the local leader of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group linked to Mr. Abbas's mainstream Fatah movement. While Zakaria Zubeidi is a hero in the West Bank, he is also on Israel's list of most wanted terrorists.

The image of Mr. Abbas riding on the shoulders of armed militants has raised some concerns in Israel where Mr. Abbas is seen as a moderate with whom Israel could negotiate. But, Abbas campaign aides say the candidate, also known as Abu Mazen, is simply tailoring his message to his audience.

Campaign Manager Mohammad Shtayeh told VOA the way to end the violence is through negotiation and that includes talking to the militants.

"Abu Mazen will be in Gaza in the coming few days to lead a dialogue with the various Palestinian factions," he said. "The most important issue is that Palestinians should unite to achieve the goal and I think national debate is the tool to do that."

Mr. Abbas is the front-runner, but lacks the charisma and grassroots appeal that Yasser Arafat enjoyed. Some Palestinians think he will be too ready to give in to Israeli demands. It is an image the candidate is trying to shed, but one that remains a point of attack for some of his rivals.

Human rights activist Mustafa Barghouti has also been on the campaign trail, calling for change and an end to corruption. He is seen as Mr. Abbas's most serious rival. There are five additional candidates vying for the presidency, but they have had little impact on the campaign.