JERUSALEM -- Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader campaigning to succeed Yasser Arafat in elections next month, said in an interview published Tuesday that the 4-year-old armed uprising against Israel was a mistake and must end.
His strong statement, which could cost him some electoral support, sent a challenge to militants who have been waging war with suicide attacks and ambushes; it also set the stage for a resumption of peace efforts if he wins.
In an interview with the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Abbas said Palestinians should resist Israeli occupation, but only through nonviolent means.
"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."
At a news conference in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Abbas said armed attacks could damage peace moves.
"We, at this stage, are against the militarization of the intefadeh [uprising] because we want to negotiate. And because we want to negotiate, the atmosphere should be calm in preparation for political action," Abbas said. "That's why we have frankly called for ... an end to the militarization of the intefadeh."
While Arafat was alive, Abbas mainly saved his criticism of the armed uprising for private conversations. When he publicly expressed his belief during the launch of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan in 2003, he drew sharp condemnation at home.
Uprising leader Marwan Barghouti's withdrawal from the Jan. 9 presidential elections has left Abbas the clear front-runner, giving him more leeway to risk alienating some potential voters in exchange for laying the groundwork for rapid post-election peace moves.
And many Palestinians -- while supporting militant attacks that have killed more than 1,000 Israelis, many of them civilians -- have tired of a conflict that has crushed their economy and killed more than 3,000 of their people.
Abbas, a pragmatist who has the quiet support of Israel and the international community, has been working to persuade militant groups to halt attacks.
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration welcomes Abbas' call for an end to violence.
"We remain focused on working toward a strategy that will put in place the institutions necessary for a viable state to emerge. But fighting terrorism and putting in a unified security force are key to those efforts," McClellan said.
Israel has said violence must end before peace talks can resume and has held out the prospect of coordinating its planned withdrawal from Gaza and four West Bank settlements with the new Palestinian leadership if it quells violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon refused to negotiate with Arafat, who died Nov. 11, accusing him of fomenting violence.
Israel also said that if the Palestinians reorganize their security services, it would be willing to give them control over large areas of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, even before the pullout next year.
Abbas told Asharq al-Awsat that Palestinian security is badly disorganized.
"Frankly, the Palestinian (security) apparatus needs discipline. There is security chaos, that's why we're demanding and are seeking to unify the security apparatus," he said.
Abbas also said he was in talks with the militant Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad to bring them into the PLO, an umbrella group for Palestinian parties.
Abbas' efforts to broker a cease-fire suffered a setback Sunday when militants killed five soldiers in a blast on the Gaza-Egypt border.
Militants have also fired rockets and mortar barrages at settlements in Gaza in the last week. One shell hit a greenhouse in the Ganei Tal settlement in southern Gaza on Tuesday, killing a Thai worker, rescue workers said.
Israel's response to the violence has been relatively muted. Israel has targeted militants with small raids, and military officials said Tuesday that Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz ordered the army to step up targeted attacks on Palestinians responsible for digging tunnels, which are used to smuggle weapons from Egypt and to burrow under military outposts in preparation for attacks.
Also Tuesday, Israeli troops shot three Palestinian security officers, wounding two and killing one, in the southern Gaza town of Rafah, Palestinian medical officials said. They said Samir Khafaja, 27, was walking in the street when Israeli forces on the border with Egypt fatally shot him. The army said it opened fire on three suspicious figures crawling near the border.
Late Tuesday, troops entered the West Bank city of Ramallah to arrest a senior official from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the army said. The soldiers shot and wounded the official, Salah Ali, as he tried to flee and took him to a hospital, the army said.
Israeli troops demolished eight homes in the Khan Younis refugee camp Tuesday, saying militants used the area as a staging ground for mortar attacks. Troops in the West Bank city of Hebron demolished two houses belonging to Hamas members and sealed the office of an Islamic charity accused of aiding militants and their families.