JERUSALEM – Yasser Arafat's top deputy said taking up arms against Israel has been a mistake for the Palestinians and must be stopped, declaring that the use of weapons had held up Palestinian independence and led to a reoccupation of West Bank cities by Israeli troops.
The comments by Mahmoud Abbas, a possible successor to the politically weakened Arafat, were made at a closed-door meeting of party leaders last month and constitute the harshest criticism a senior Palestinian figure has leveled at militants since violence erupted in September 2000.
The remarks come at a time when Islamic militants and other extremists are pressing ahead with bombings and shootings, while ordinary Palestinians are increasingly split on whether the uprising is moving them closer to -- or driving them further from -- Palestinian statehood. The statements thrust into the open an issue Palestinians have previously debated only in private.
"Many people diverted the uprising from its natural path and embarked on a path we can't handle, with the use of weapons ... such as mortars, grenades and shooting from houses and populated areas," Abbas said in a closed-door meeting with activists of Arafat's Fatah movement in the Gaza Strip on Oct. 24.
"If we do a calculation of the gains and losses ... we will see that without any doubt is that what we lost was big and what we gained was small," he said.
"We should ask ourselves, 'Where are we heading?' We should be honest with ourselves and ask ourselves -- not by beating ourselves up, but by reviewing the mistakes we made."
Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, was en route to Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday and was not available for comment. The Associated Press obtained a full transcript of the private meeting from Abbas' office on Wednesday after Al Hayat, an Arabic-language daily based in London, published excerpts Tuesday. Those excerpts were reprinted Wednesday in the Palestinian daily Al Quds.
For two years, Palestinian leaders and the public have strongly endorsed the intefadeh, or uprising, and public debate has been minimal, despite heavy losses.
The fighting has put off any prospect of Palestinian independence in the near future, has left the economy in shambles and led to the reoccupation of most West Bank towns by Israeli troops, in retaliation for Palestinian attacks. Almost 2,000 Palestinians and more than 650 Israelis have been killed.
"What happened in these two years, as we see it now, is a complete destruction of everything we built," Abbas said.
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said he had limited information on Abbas' remarks. But referring to the Palestinian uprising, he said, "I believe it clearly was a mistake. It hasn't brought the Palestinian people any closer to a state of their own or to peace."
Abbas did not name militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but said some militias were working to tear down the Palestinian Authority, established eight years ago and seen as an interim step on the road to statehood.
"Several factions don't want a real Authority. They want to destroy it and to replace it," he said.
A poll released last week showed more Palestinians expressing doubts than before about the effectiveness of the uprising. Asked if it was achieving its goals, 39 percent said it was, while 36 percent it wasn't, according to the survey by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Arafat, 73, has lost much of his clout during the uprising, and has been isolated at his battered West Bank headquarters in Ramallah for most of the past year. He did not respond to Abbas' remarks.
The Palestinian leadership, including Arafat, has condemned bombings and shootings inside Israel. But Palestinian security forces have done little to prevent the violence, leading Israeli forces to move into Palestinian cities in the West Bank.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad have rejected Arafat's call to halt attacks. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Fatah, recently agreed to stop strikes inside Israel, but didn't call off attacks against Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The problem is that when the Israelis assassinate a leader from Al Aqsa, his friends want to take revenge, and nobody can stop them because they are so young and hotheaded," said Salah Nasser, an Al Aqsa leader.
In last month's meeting in Gaza, Abbas said the uprising was understandable. Palestinians were upset over perceived Israeli foot-dragging in negotiations, by Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's provocative visit to a disputed Jerusalem holy site and by the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
But the broad-based protests quickly became armed conflict, Abbas said. Palestinian attacks from populated areas endangered Palestinians lives and property by inviting Israeli retaliation. "We have to control the situation," he said. "What is needed now is to say, clearly and firmly -- until here and enough."
Abbas was not specific in saying what Arafat and other Palestinian leaders could do, or should have done, to prevent the attacks.
No. 2 in the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership, Abbas has been regarded as a possible successor to Arafat. Abbas, 67, is best known as a behind-the-scenes negotiator who rarely makes public speeches despite his high-ranking position. He has been an influential Palestinian figure for decades, though some younger and more radical Palestinians view him as too moderate and too willing to compromise with the Israelis.
The Palestinian uprising began less than three months after lengthy negotiations at Camp David, Maryland, where Israel's moderate Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians a state that would have included the Gaza Strip, most of the West Bank and a foothold in east Jerusalem.
The Palestinian leadership rejected the offer as insufficient in several areas, though talks continued until just before then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak lost to Sharon in a February 2001 election. Sharon has overseen an escalation of military actions aimed at crushing the uprising, and says peace negotiations won't resume until Palestinian violence ends.
Abbas said he did not believe Sharon was serious about a peace deal, and this would be widely apparent if the armed struggle was called off and negotiations resumed.
Meanwhile, Sharon reaffirmed his conditional support for Palestinian statehood -- a hotly contested issue in the race for leadership of the Likud Party. Sharon's challenger, Benjamin Netanyahu, says he would not permit establishment of a Palestinian state.
If Sharon wins Thursday's leadership vote, as expected, he's considered likely to keep his job in the Jan. 28 general elections.
In violence Wednesday, two Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli troops in the West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian bomber blew up a car near an Israeli-Palestinian liaison office, killing himself, but causing no injuries to bystanders.