Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas phoned Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday expressing hope that the evacuation of settlers from the Gaza Strip and four northern West Bank settlements would open a new page in relations, Israeli sources said.

Sources at Sharon’s office said the two agreed to meet as soon as possible.

Palestinian senior negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat said on Tuesday that the Palestinian leadership is committed to pursuing peace in the region and that they were glad that the removal of settlers went smoothly and quietly.

A statement by Sharon’s office said that Abbas described Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip as a ‘brave and historic decision.’

Israel began placing settlers in the Gaza Strip in the early 1970s and claimed the land as part of Israel.  Only recently, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are not part of Israel.

According to the statement, Abbas added that he ‘hopes the disengagement plan will turn over a new page between the two peoples’ and that both he and Sharon should work together ‘for the sake of peace and the future of both peoples and the region.’

Both leaders last met on June 21 in West Jerusalem.  The meeting was described as a failure.  Sharon only discussed security issues related to the pullout and refused to accept Abbas’s request to strengthen his hand by easing the situation in the Palestinian areas.

Abbas had earlier commented that the pullout from Gaza was a first step, and that Israeli evacuations of Jerusalem and the West Bank would follow.

‘It’s a beginning of the full withdrawal from all the settlements. We will not close our eyes, we will not rest until they leave from all our land.’

In a meeting with at least 400 Palestinians who are now disabled due to Israeli army attacks on the Gaza Strip, Abbas described the pullout as a result of their resistance and struggle.

‘The bullets that hit your bodies and the wounds that are still in your bodies are signs of honor,’ Abbas said.

‘Today we are getting part of the payoff, of your sacrifice, by seeing the last settlers leaving Gaza. The credit for the evacuation is for you and for the martyrs who sacrificed themselves and gave their lives for the homeland.’