Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal denounced Israeli attacks against civilians in the Gaza strip on Saturday, describing it as "the real Holocaust."

Sixty-five Gazans, at least half of them civilians, have died in pitched battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian rocket squads that began Wednesday and escalated sharply on Saturday. Throughout Saturday, 35 Gazans were killed. West Bank leaders have threatened to suspend peace talks to protest the Israeli attacks, which came as Gaza militants bombarded southern Israel with dozens of rockets and mortars.

"Israeli actions in Gaza since Wednesday is the real Holocaust," Mashaal told reporters in Damascus, where he lives in exile.

He accused Israel of "exaggerating the Holocaust and using it to blackmail the world."

"Israel wants to exaggerate the Holocaust and make from it a tragedy such that no other can have their own tragedy," he said. "The Palestinian people are the victims and Israel is the hangman and killer," he added.

He also lashed out at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, accusing him of "providing a cover for the Israeli Holocaust" in Gaza by claiming that Hamas militants were sheltering al-Qaida terrorists.

He also blamed some European countries, without naming them, for keeping silent on Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians.

"It is shameful that some Western countries try to clear their conscience with regards to the Holocaust that took place on their own land by being silent on the real Holocaust being committed by Israel against the Palestinian people," he said.

Mashaal's multiple references to the Holocaust appeared to be a reaction to a statement Friday by Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai who told Israeli Army Radio that Israel had "no other choice" but to launch a massive military operation in Gaza. Vilnai said the Palestinians would be "bringing upon themselves a greater 'shoah' because we will use all our strength in every way we deem appropriate, whether in airstrikes or on the ground."

The Hebrew word "shoah" most often refers to the Holocaust but Israelis use it to describe all sorts of disasters. Vilnai spokesman Eitan Ginzburg said the deputy defense minister never intended it as a reference to the Holocaust but used the word "shoah" to denote a disaster.

Mashaal warned Israel against the "folly" of invading Gaza, saying Israeli soldiers would be defeated by Palestinians who "will fight like lions."

The Hamas leader called on Arabs and Muslims worldwide to "go back to the streets in the East and West ... to tell the world that 'we will not stay silent in the face of this Holocaust'."

Mashaal announced Palestinian refugees in Syria would stage a protest later in the day against the ongoing Gaza violence.

Meanwhile in Jordan, some 500 angry demonstrators gathered in the al-Wihdat refugee camp Saturday on the outskirts of Amman to protest the Israeli strikes in Gaza. The protesters, mainly followers of the Islamic Action Front — Jordan's largest political opposition — shouted slogans against Israel and burned the Israeli flag.