Abbas calls on Palestinians to drop armed struggle
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas called on Tuesday for his people to pursue negotiations instead of violence in the struggle for a state, marking out a change of strategy for peace with Israel after Yasser Arafat's death.
Abbas, likely to succeed Arafat in Jan. 9 elections, spoke two days after militants showed their muscle with the deadliest raid on Israeli troops since May, and as a Palestinian policeman and a farmer at a Jewish settlement died in fresh Gaza violence.
"The use of arms has been damaging and should end," the U.S.-favored leader said in an interview published by the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, reiterating a long-standing opposition to armed attacks in a 4-year-old Palestinian revolt.
Abbas later cast the remarks, his strongest since Arafat's death on Nov. 11, as a call for renewed diplomacy. "At this stage we are against militarizing the uprising because we want to negotiate," he told reporters during a visit to Saudi Arabia.
Despite Abbas's stance, mounting violence in the occupied Gaza Strip has dampened hopes of a peace breakthrough after Arafat's death. Israel ordered more efforts to target militants after an attack that killed five Israeli troops on Sunday.
"We will continue this fight against terror until someone else fights the terror," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters, alluding to the Palestinian Authority.
Witnesses said Israeli troops killed a Palestinian policeman in Rafah, a flashpoint town on the Gaza-Egypt border, and wounded another. Military sources said troops fired at gunmen seen crawling toward the border fence.
At the Jewish settlement of Ganei Tal in central Gaza, mortar shells killed a Thai farm-hand and wounded two others, military sources said. Hamas, an Islamic group sworn to the Jewish state's destruction, claimed credit for the barrage.
"We call upon foreign workers to abandon their work in Jewish settlements, otherwise they will be subject to rocket and mortar attack," Hamas said in a statement.
Violence in Gaza has soared ahead of a planned Israeli pullout next year from the territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war, but the latest bloodshed has also sent a strong message to Abbas and other new Palestinian leaders.
Abbas, who took over as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization after Arafat's death, has been trying to court the militants for a possible future political coalition. But Hamas, which with a group from Abbas's own dominant Fatah faction carried out Sunday's attack, rejected his call to abandon arms.
"I believe the consensus of the Palestinian people contradicts these statements," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. "The strategies of the Palestinian people should be discussed through a serious and comprehensive dialogue."
Hamas has called for a boycott of the presidential election and a low turnout could damage the credibility of Abbas if it comes to disarming militants.
Israel has promised to help ensure that the vote goes smoothly, but said there could be no talks with Palestinian leaders unless they managed to rein in armed factions in a way that Arafat failed to.
Regardless of any negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (news - web sites) plans to quit Gaza and four of 120 West Bank settlements in the West Bank next year under an initiative to "disengage" from the conflict.
Palestinians fear Sharon's real aim is to strengthen Israel's hold on the West Bank in exchange for giving up impoverished Gaza, though Western countries support the plan as a possible step to peace.
Earlier on Tuesday, Israeli troops blew up seven homes in the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis after telling residents to leave, witnesses said. The army said it destroyed buildings used as cover for firing rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements.
Israeli tanks later rolled up to Gaza City's Shijaia neighborhood, a stronghold of Islamic militant groups sworn to destroying the Jewish state. Gunfire erupted between soldiers and militants who rushed to the scene.