"We agreed a cool-down with Palestinian factions to give negotiation a chance and one of the results is that the Gaza Strip is going to be emptied of settlers and soldiers," Abbas told leading Arab Israeli daily Kul al-Arab in an interview published on Friday.

 

The principal Palestinian factions have been largely adhering to an informal ceasefire in anti-Israeli attacks since Abbas was elected Palestinian leader in January, an arrangement firmed up during talks in Cairo last March.

 

Despite frequent violence, the cool-down has marked a significant reduction in unrest since the start of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000.

 

"After five years of intifada, I repeat that the balance of force is not in our favour and that dialogue is more beneficial than violence," the newspaper quoted Abbas as saying.

 

Criticism

 

He again criticised Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli targets, which have provoked harsh responses from Israel in the Gaza Strip, particularly in the impoverished area of Beit Hanun to the north.

Zahar says Israel's Gaza pullout
is a result of Hamas resistance

 

"Resorting to rockets deprives the Palestinian people of so much. Look at Beit Hanun, it was the agricultural jewel of Palestine and now it is desert," he charged.

 

But Mahmud Zahar, the leader of Hamas in its Gaza stronghold, charged that Israel's pullout from the territory was a direct result of the movement's campaign of armed resistance during the last five years.

 

"In bearing arms, we have certainly suffered losses, but they are transitory, because the result is liberation. No people have resisted without incurring losses, but the reward is victory," he said.

 

Bearing arms

 

Zahar also reiterated that Hamas would not lay down its weapons after the pullout from Gaza, wary over the future intentions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

 

"We want no more and no less than what (US) President (George) Bush stated and dreamt of: two states, Israel and an independent, contiguous and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace"

Mahmud Zahar,
Hamas leader

"Who can guarantee us that Sharon will not re-occupy (the territory) again? Who can guarantee us that he will leave the West Bank? We cannot be peaceful in Gaza and abandon Jerusalem and the West Bank," he said.

 

In his own interview with the newspaper, Abbas called again for further Israeli withdrawals in order to grant the Palestinians their promised state.

 

"We are now going through a first phase which is the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, and we hope that other steps and other withdrawals will follow from other parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem," he said.

 

"We want no more and no less than what (US) President (George) Bush stated and dreamt of: two states, Israel and an independent, contiguous and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace," he said.