JERUSALEM – The armed uprising against Israel was a mistake and should end, interim Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) said in an interview published Tuesday, for the first time speaking in public about a long-held view.
Abbas, the current PLO leader, is the front-runner to replace Yasser Arafat (search) in Jan. 9 elections for Palestinian Authority president. Abbas, a pragmatist who opposes violence, has the support of Israel and the international community.
While Arafat was still alive, Abbas told associates in closed-door meetings that he felt the uprising was a mistake, but never went public with his ideas, apparently because he did not want to challenge Arafat. At the time, polls also indicated that Palestinian militants enjoyed broad public support.
However, after Arafat's death, Abbas has been more candid about his views.
He told the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in an interview published Tuesday that Palestinians should resist Israeli occupation without resorting to violence.
It is important to "keep the uprising away from arms because the uprising is a legitimate right of the people to express their rejection of the occupation by popular and social means," Abbas said.
"Using the weapons was harmful and has got to stop," Abbas said, referring to shootings and bombings by Palestinian militants that have killed hundreds of Israelis since the outbreak of fighting in September 2000.
Israel has said violence must end before peace talks can resume.
On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said that if the Palestinians work to quell the violence, Israel could coordinate its planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip (search) and four West Banks settlements with the new Palestinian leadership.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with Arafat, accusing him of fomenting violence. Israel is keeping its distance from Abbas ahead of the election, not wanting to hurt his chances.
Mofaz also said that if the Palestinians reorganize their security services Israel would be willing to give them control over large areas of Gaza and parts of the West Bank before the pullout.
But Abbas said that currently Palestinian security is in a state of chaos.
"Frankly, the Palestinian (security) apparatus needs discipline. There is security chaos, that's why were demanding and are seeking to unify the security apparatus," Abbas told Asharq al-Awsat.
Abbas also said he was in talks with the militant Islamic groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to bring them into the framework of the PLO, an umbrella group for Palestinian parties.
However, Abbas' efforts to persuade the militants to halt attacks on Israelis in the run-up to the vote suffered a setback Sunday when Hamas and a Fatah offshoot dug a tunnel under an Israeli post on the Gaza-Egypt border, blowing it up and killing five Israeli soldiers.
Militants in Gaza have also fired repeated barrages of rockets and mortars at Jewish settlements in the last week.
Israel's response has been muted. The military apparently fears that a large-scale operation could jeopardize the Palestinian elections with the blame laid at Israel's door.
Israel has continued targeting militants with smaller raids and military officials said Tuesday that Mofaz ordered the army to step up its targeted attacks against Palestinians responsible for digging the tunnels, which are also used to smuggle weapons into Gaza.
Violence in Gaza continued Tuesday, with Israeli troops moving into the Khan Younis refugee camp and demolishing eight homes before withdrawing. There were no casualties.
Palestinian officials said about 45 people were ordered out of their homes before the structures were destroyed.
The army said the area was used by militants as a staging ground for launching mortar attacks against nearby settlements.
During more than four years of violence, Israeli troops have demolished hundreds of Palestinian homes and buildings, saying the structures are used for cover by Palestinian militants. Palestinians, U.N. officials and human rights groups say the demolitions have left thousands of people homeless.
Also Tuesday, Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron demolished two houses and sealed the office of an Islamic charity charged of aiding militants and their families
Troops raised the homes of two Hamas members accused of carrying out a number of shooting attacks in the area, the army and residents said.
The army also routinely destroys the homes of Palestinians militants, hoping it will act as a deterrent.