NABLUS, West Bank (AP) _ Yasser Arafat's sole challenger in the race for Palestinian leader has launched a campaign that mixes feminism with criticism of the PLO leader for failing to get a better deal from Israel.

Samiha Khalil, a 72-year-old grandmother and veteran social activist, told supporters gathered in a hotel in newly autonomous Nablus on Tuesday that the Israel-PLO accords fell far short of Palestinians' minimal demands for a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

``We have no real independence,'' she said, winning polite applause from a supportive but seemingly skeptical audience of businessmen, academics and social workers.

After delays and last-minute changes in procedure, the campaign for the Jan. 20 election officially kicked off Tuesday with 637 candidates running for the 88-seat National Council. Only 24 are women.

Khalil, who is known throughout the West Bank as ``The Aunt,'' is the only candidate registered to run against Arafat for the top job as president of the autonomy government that will rule Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza.

She has founded a number of Palestinian charities, including the respected Family Rehabilitation Society that has provided financial aid and jobs to thousands of families.

In addition, she has established a cookie factory whose profits are sent to needy families, orphans and families of Palestinians killed fighting Israeli rule.

Although Khalil has neither a political party behind her nor a well-formed constituency, on Jan. 20 she will be the only electoral outlet for Palestinians upset at the fact that self-rule for now has turned out to be little more than freedom of movement within their towns.

Aware that hers is an uphill battle and that Arafat seems certain to win, Khalil says she is using the campaign mainly as a platform to criticize the Palestinian Authority and to put pressure on Israel.

Arafat, who has been criticized for autocratic rule and attempts to muzzle the Palestinian media, welcomes the challenge as proof that the elections are open and fair.

The PLO chief has failed in efforts to persuade his main opposition, the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, to run against him.

In her speech, the plain-spoken Khalil criticized those boycotting the election and said the best way to exert influence was by participating in the democratic process.

``We have heard from the opposition many times that they want to destroy (the peace process). They have done nothing. We have to participate in elections and we have to make changes from within,'' said Khalil.

Her goals, she said, were to achieve a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in east Jerusalem, to make that state democratic, and to introduce equal rights in the Palestinians' patriarchal society.

``Women and men should be equal in all aspects. Women can make decisions just as well as men,'' Khalil, dressed in a black business suit, told the impassive, mostly male audience.

Her own career provides sound support.

Born in the village of Anabta in 1923, Samiha Kubaj cut short her studies when she married Salameh Khalil at the age of 17.

After Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, she joined the PLO and tried to unite its various factions. Israel detained her six times for anti-Israeli activity and placed her under town arrest in El Bireh for 2 1/2 years in the early 1980s. For 12 years, until the mid-1980s, she was not permitted to leave the West Bank to travel abroad.

The mother of five, who also has numerous grandchildren, is a member of the Palestine National Council, the Palestinians' parliament-in-exile.

In the past two months, Israel has withdrawn from Nablus and five other West Bank towns, as well as more than 400 villages, leaving 90 percent of its 1.2 million Arab residents under autonomy.

But Palestinians still need Israel's permission to leave their enclaves, and Israeli troops still can stop their cars on roads linking West Bank towns and frisk passengers.

Israel retains full control over almost two-thirds of the land in the West Bank, a Delaware-sized territory, pending further withdrawals and a final settlement to be negotiated in talks that are to begin in May.

But unlike Hamas, which rejects the very existence of the Jewish state, Khalil says she would accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel as long as the Palestinians controlled the entire West Bank and Gaza, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Mideast war.

Arafat's peacemaking, she argued Tuesday, does not guarantee this.

``The agreement failed ... to transfer us from occupation to independence,'' she said. ``It did not fulfill the minimal demands. It kept (Jewish) settlements, land confiscation continues and the Palestinians are living in cantons,'' she said.

``She has no chance of success,'' said Nasser Abdel Kareem, lecturer at Nablus An-Najah University, after hearing the speech. ``But I support her because she represents a courageous position.''