RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Palestinians marked the fourth
anniversary of their uprising yesterday amid signs that the
extremist Hamas group is preparing a political challenge to Yasser
Arafat despite a series of Israeli military blows at the
movement’s leadership.

Eston Bond
CNN producer Riad Ali is greeted by members of his family upon his arrival in Mrar, his village in northern Israel, late yesterday, a day after being kidnapped.

Hamas published newspaper ads urging supporters to vote in
upcoming municipal elections, saying “it’s time for
change.” A Hamas leader indicated the group might try to
unseat Arafat in presidential elections, which have not yet been
scheduled.

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants released an Arab-Israeli
television producer for CNN a day after his abduction in the Gaza
Strip. It remained unclear why he was taken hostage.

The kidnapping, coupled with Hamas’s electoral challenge,
were apt reflections of the state of affairs in the West Bank and
Gaza Strip after four years of fighting with Israel. The violence
has left Arafat’s Palestinian Authority severely weakened,
leading to widespread chaos and boosting Hamas’
popularity.

“We need an evaluation of these four years,”
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said. “Where have we
been right and where have we been wrong? What did we achieve and
what didn’t we achieve?” Qureia also called on Israel
to reassess its policies.

The uprising erupted on Sept. 28, 2000, after Ariel Sharon, then
Israel’s opposition leader, visited a sensitive Jerusalem
hilltop revered by both Jews and Muslims. Palestinian riots broke
out, and five months later Sharon defeated Ehud Barak in a special
election for prime minister.

The fighting has taken a heavy toll on both sides, killing more
than 3,000 Palestinians and nearly 1,000 Israelis.

In the latest violence, about 30 Israeli tanks moved into
northern Gaza yesterday night and fired several shells, witnesses
said. The military said the purpose was to try to stop militants
from shooting rockets at nearby Israeli towns. Earlier, the
Israelis blew up a building next to the Gaza settlement of
Netzarim, sa ying it contained a tunnel used by militants. No
casualties were reported in either incident.

Israel appears to have the upper hand in the fighting. It has
confined Arafat to his West Bank headquarters for three years and
killed hundreds of leading militants. The Palestinian economy is in
tatters.

In a sign of Palestinian weariness, a recent opinion poll by
An-Najah University found that two-thirds of Palestinians support a
cease-fire with Israel.

“The uprising has not been defeated, but it has not
brought victory. Frankly, it is now closer to defeat than
victory,” commentator Hani al-Masri wrote in the Palestinian
daily Al Ayyam.

Sharon has abandoned peace talks with the Palestinians and
instead launched a “unilateral disengagement” plan
meant to separate the two peoples. The plan includes building a
huge barrier to separate Israel from the West Bank and making a
complete pullout from Gaza next year.

Hamas is vying with other groups for a prominent role after the
Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, where Hamas wields great influence
despite Israeli assassinations of its top leaders.

Yesterday, Hamas published newspaper ads urging its followers to
register to vote in local Palestinian elections, which are
scheduled to begin Dec. 9. “Fellow citizens, it’s time
for change. It’s time to register your name,” the ad
said.

Hamas previously said it would participate in the elections, but
until yesterday it had shown minimal interest in the campaign.

The call came a day after a Hamas leader was quoted as saying
the group planned to contest legislative and presidential
elections, which Arafat has promised to hold but has not yet
scheduled. The comment by Mahmoud Zahar marked the first time Hamas
made such a commitment.

A strong Hamas campaign could pose a formidable challenge to
Arafat. The veteran Palestinian leader consented this month to hold
municipal elections in response to widespread discontent over his
corruption-plagued government.

Arafat has long resisted elections, saying Israeli military
occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip make orderly voting
impossible. But critics accuse him of making excuses to avoid
facing an electoral test of the growing dissatisfaction with his
rule.

Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in
Israel, is committed to the destruction of the Jewish state. Even
so, Palestinian Authority officials welcomed Hamas’
participation in the political process as a sign of moderation.

In Gaza, Palestinian militants released CNN producer Riad
Ali.

It was not clear whether his kidnapping Monday signaled a new
practice by Palestinian militants — perhaps an attempt to
copy Iraqi insurgents who have snatched dozens of foreigners
— or whether Ali was taken for personal or local reasons.

Talking to reporters after emerging from a Gaza police station,
Ali refused to discuss what demands his abductors made, but said
they identified themselves as members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’
Brigades, which is linked to Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Al Aqsa spokesman Abu Mohammed denied the group was
involved.

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