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Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas called on Monday for Israel to return to the negotiating table, during a speech marking the anniversary of what the Palestinians consider to be the "catastrophe" (Nakba) of Israel's creation.
"Let us sit down at the negotiating table, away from dictated solutions and away from unilateral steps," he said. He called on the "Quartet" of Mideast peacemakers - the US, European Union, United Nations and Russia - to convene an international conference to "realize the dream ... that will result in the creation of an independent free and democratic Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital."
Abbas also urged Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip to halt rocket attacks on Israel. He said that the violence encouraged Israel to step up its military activity and proceed with unilateral plans to impose a border on the Palestinians.
"I tell our neighbors, the Israelis, that we want to make a just and lasting peace with you, and we want a better future for our children and yours. So come to make this year a year of peace," he said in remarks set to be broadcast later Monday on Palestinian television and radio.
"Let's stop the pretext that there's no Palestinian partner," Abbas said. "The partner exists, and we extend our hand to you to make peace."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Israel wants to reach a peace agreement, but dismissed the idea of bypassing Hamas and talking only to Abbas. "No one can ignore the reality following the Palestinian election, substantive political power has moved to Hamas," he said.
In his speech, Abbas signaled to Hamas that it must change its ways and pursue a path of diplomacy. "The PLO, which led our people in its most difficult times, would not have survived until now, or received international recognition, had it not been forthcoming in formulating courageous political initiatives," he said.
Abbas called on Palestinian militants in Gaza to halt rocket attacks aimed at Israel. The rocket fire has prompted harsh Israeli reprisals of air strikes and artillery fire.
"The futile 'missiles' fired from Gaza should be stopped, as they only justify Israel's aggression against our people," he said. "Fiery statements, speeches and slogans can only result in more isolation, and what is more dangerous, will lead us into the pothole Israel wants to keep us in, in order to say we have no Palestinian partner to negotiate with."
At the same time, he welcomed the recent decision by Western donors to restore humanitarian aid to the impoverished Palestinians. It remains unclear, however, when the money will begin flowing, or how exactly it will be spent.
"The situation as I see it requires the international community not to punish the Palestinian people for their democratic choice," he said. "I hope the salaries of tens of thousands of employees will come soon."
The Naqba commemorations came days before the new Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, makes his first trip to Washington. Olmert is expected to present American officials with his plans for a withdrawal from much of the West Bank.
Olmert says he would prefer a negotiated settlement, but will take unilateral action if Hamas doesn't soften its line in the coming months. His plan, which calls for dismantling dozens of Jewish settlements while strengthening large settlement blocs, falls short of the Palestinian claim to all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
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