Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has hailed the Israeli evacuation of settlements in the Gaza Strip in an upbeat speech before hundreds of cheering supporters at the Gaza International Airport. The remarks came following three days of intense activity by Israeli security forces to evacuate Gaza settlers and bring an end to Israel's presence there.

The Palestinian leader said the Israeli withdrawal had brought what he termed "historic days of joy" and he promised there would be new jobs, freedom of movement and new housing. He said the withdrawal was the result of patience and sacrifice of the Palestinian people.

Israel acted unilaterally in disengaging from Gaza, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saying that keeping the settlements came at too high a price in lives and money.

Palestinian militant groups say their attacks forced the Israeli pullout. While President Abbas made reference to those killed in the last five years of violence and those imprisoned by the Israelis, he put the emphasis on improving people's daily lives.

Mr. Abbas smiled broadly and seemed relaxed as he spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of hundreds of supporters at the Gaza international airport at Rafah.

Israel destroyed the runways at the airport after the intifada broke out in 2000. President Abbas promised the airport would reopen soon and be ready to welcome visitors. So far no agreement has been reached with Israel on the reopening of the facility.

Mr. Abbas also promised that the Palestinian Authority would rebuild all the homes demolished by Israel over the past five years. He also pledged to give the younger generation a voice. He said, the young people are the future of this country, and this is the time for them to play a role in life and in the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian Authority has been criticized for being run by an old guard that is widely regarded as corrupt. Lack of confidence in the authority has provided an opening for groups like Hamas which, in addition to its militant wing, provides much needed social services and is widely viewed as honest.