On Sunday morning around 50 tanks and armoured vehicles poured into the Beit Hanun area, situated near the Erez border crossing between Israel and the Palestinian territory, after a series of rocket attacks wounded at least three Israelis.

But later in the day the Israeli army had withdrawn, apparently responding to accusations it was stirring trouble ahead of Sunday’s election.

The latest incursion, in which two Palestinians were wounded, came hours after the Israeli army withdrew from the Khan Yunis area of southern Gaza.

It had been launching operations to stop militants firing rockets and mortars at nearby Israeli settlements.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has given the military a free rein to put a halt to rocket attacks by Palestinian militant groups.

After accusing Jerusalem of trying to disrupt the poll with its offensives, Mr Abbas also criticised the militants behind the rocket attacks when he addressed a rally in northern Gaza.

“I say to them: ‘This is not the time for this kind of act’,” he told a group of 4,000 supporters.

“Do not give Israel more reason to attack us,” he added.

Mr Abbas had earlier said the Israelis appeared intent on undermining the election with their offensives.

“The target of this escalation is to put an obstacle in the way of the Palestinian election,” he said.

“The international community must be very careful about what is going on — the democratic process here is being put in danger.”

Israel has pledged to assist the holding of a free and fair election next Sunday and has promised its troops will steer clear of Palestinian population centers over a 72-hour period before, during and after the vote.

But the Israeli government was unrepentant, saying there would be no half measures in the efforts to put a halt to the rocket attacks and accusing Mr Abbas of failing to stop them.

The new Israeli offensive started just as another three-day operation in southern Gaza was concluding.

Eleven Palestinians were killed during the operation in Khan Yuniss, which also reportedly saw the destruction of 20 Palestinian houses, leaving 186 people homeless.

Israel says it was targeting militants who fire homemade rockets and mortar rounds at southern Israeli towns and settlements.

Mr Abbas told the Associated Press that Palestinians are beholden to the gunmen for their resistance against the Israeli occupation and have a duty to protect them from reprisals.

At a rally on Sunday, he pledged before thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of gunmen, not to abandon them.

“We say to our fighting brothers that are wanted by Israel, we will not rest until you can enjoy a life of security, peace, and dignity, so you can live in your country with total freedom,” he said.

He also promised to not to rest until an independent Palestinian state is established, Israeli settlements are dismantled and Palestinian refugees get their rights.

His comments were quickly criticized in Washington.

“We need reformed Palestinian leadership that deals with this terrorist threat. Mr Abbas said he hopes to persuade them, but that may not be enough. The challenge may be greater than that. He may have to undertake operations against them,” said US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

A new poll has confirmed Mr Abbas’s status as overwhelming favourite for the election to replace Yasser Arafat as head of the Palestinian Authority.

65 percent of voters intend to back him, standing for the dominant Fatah faction, while the independent candidate Mustafa Barghuti recorded a 22 percent rating.

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