A prominent West Bank gunman carried a smiling Mahmoud Abbas on his shoulders Thursday, endorsing the presidential candidate and prompting questions of whether Abbas is playing campaign politics or identifying with violent groups.
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 for his swagger and wanted by Israel for organizing attacks and sending suicide bombers into Israeli cities, took center stage in welcoming Abbas to the camp. Jenin was the scene of heavy fighting during an Israeli incursion in 2002 that followed one of the bombings.
Zubeidi and other gunmen hoisted aloft Abbas, who smiled and waved to about 3,000 Palestinians gathered around. Some in the crowd were armed.
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. Then Zubeidi escorted Abbas' car out of the camp.