By Tom Perry
RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian leaders said on Saturday U.S. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich had invited more conflict in the Middle East by calling the Palestinians an "invented" people who want to destroy Israel.
Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, described his comments in an interview as "despicable." Hanan Ashrawi, another top official, said Gingrich's "very racist comments" showed he was "incapable of holding public office."
"This is the lowest point of thinking anyone can reach," Erekat, a close advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, told Reuters. Such comments served only to "increase the cycle of violence," he added.
"What is the cause of violence, war in this region? Denial, denying people their religion, their existence, and now he is denying our existence," said Erekat, for years a leading figure in peace talks aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In an interview on Friday with the Jewish Channel, Gingrich predictably sided with Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians, who are seeking a state of their own on land occupied by Israel in a 1967 war.
But the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives departed from official U.S. policy that respects the Palestinians as a people deserving of their own state based on negotiations with Israel.
"Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire" until the early 20th century, said Gingrich, who has risen to the top of Republican polls with voting to start early next year to pick a nominee to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.
NO "CONTRIBUTION TO PEACE"
"I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it's tragic," he said.
There are around 11 million Palestinians around the world, Palestinian officials say. They include refugees and their descendants who left or were forced to flee their homes during the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel. More than 4 million of them live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The 1948 war erupted after Arab states rejected a U.N. plan that would have divided British mandate-ruled Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.
Gingrich along with other Republican candidates are seeking to attract Jewish support by vowing to bolster U.S. ties with Israel if elected.
He said both the Hamas militant group, which controls the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority, which receives financial backing from the United States, represent "an enormous desire to destroy Israel."
While Hamas remains committed to armed "resistance" and will not recognize Israel, the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah states that only peaceful means can deliver Palestinian statehood and its security forces cooperate with Israel.
Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee, said Gingrich's remarks harked back to days when the Palestinians' existence as a people was denied by Israelis such as Golda Meir, prime minister from 1969 to 1974.
"It is certainly regressive," she said. "This is certainly an invitation to further conflict rather than any contribution to peace."
"This proves that in the hysterical atmosphere of American elections, people lose all touch with reality and make not just irresponsible and dangerous statements, but also very racist comments that betray not just their own ignorance but an unforgivable bias," she said.
Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the Gingrich remarks "were grave comments that represented an incitement for ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians."
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by David Cowell)