Abbas, demonstrating a new knack for popular politicking after decades as a deputy to Arafat, drew cheers from thousands in two cities hemmed in by Israel's separation wall in his pursuit of election on 9 January as Palestinian president.

"No [Middle East] peace can transpire with [Jewish] settlements
and the wall," Abbas said on Wednesday.

He was speaking with his back to the towering concrete divide that virtually encircles the town of Qalqilya near the West Bank's boundary with Israel.

"We tell our neighbours: No matter how many settlements, walls or obstacles you build, it will not bring you security or
peace," said the veteran who wants talks on Palestinian statehood on Israeli-occupied land after years of fighting.

Israel says the wall, a mix of electronic fences and
barriers that encroaches on West Bank territory by differing
amounts over the 200km built so far, is meant to keep human bombers
out of its cities.

Illegal barrier

Palestinians call the barrier - whose planned course would
encompass Israeli settlements in the West Bank - a disguised move to annex or fragment territory Palestinians seek for a
viable state.

The World Court has called the wall illegal for being built on captured land.

Palestinians say the wall is an
Israeli land grab

Thousands of farmers have been separated from fields and the barrier has hampered trade between villages and market towns such as Qalqilya, where 40,000 people are ringed by concrete except for one small outlet.

Abbas has raised hopes for peace by quickly becoming the overwhelming favourite to replace Arafat in the election, riding a swing in Palestinian sentiment in favour of negotiations since the iconic former leader died at 75 last month.

The hearty welcome given Abbas at his first campaign rally
in Jericho on Tuesday carried over on Wednesday to Qalqilya and Tulkarim.

Crowds repeatedly interrupted his speeches with cheers and people of all ages ran excitedly after his convoy.

Functionary turned politician

Abbas, 69, smiled and raised his arms to those who hailed
and sometimes swarmed round him to shake his hand, revelling in a crowd like a natural politician contrasting with his longtime image as a sober functionary in Arafat's inner circle.

Heavy security was draped around Abbas because of feared
threats from those opposed to peace moves with Israel.

"No [Middle East] peace can transpire with [Jewish] settlements and the wall. We tell our neighbours: No matter how many settlements, walls or obstacles you build, it will not bring you security or peace"

Mahmud Abbas,
Palestinian presidential candidate

However, local members of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group in the Fatah faction that nominated Abbas for president, greeted Abbas and said they would vote for him.

Abu Salim, commander of the Brigades in Tulkarim, said fighters would be receptive to Abbas' call for an end to armed violence, which has abated in most areas since Arafat died in November.

Abbas repeated his campaign theme that he would follow in
Arafat's footsteps by vowing to seek a state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital and the "right of return" of refugees to what is now Israel.

Israel and US mediators boycotted Arafat but have sized up Abbas as someone they could deal with because he has branded anti-Israel violence a mistake.