Hamas withdraws its militia as it grapples with Abbas’ ultimatum


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – The Islamic militant Hamas government withdrew its militia from the streets of Gaza on Friday, pulling back from an increasingly bloody confrontation with security forces loyal to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas.

The conciliatory signal came as Hamas grappled with Abbas’ ultimatum that it either accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel – implicitly recognizing the Jewish state – or be challenged in a national referendum. Hamas appeared divided, with some in the group threatening to fight the referendum idea and others embracing it.

The power struggle between Hamas and Abbas has intensified in recent weeks, with street fighting leaving 10 dead and dozens wounded. Abbas’ bold challenge to Hamas, in giving the group 10 days to moderate or face a referendum, could either resolve the standoff or drive the political rivals toward even bloodier conflict.

In other developments Friday, three Palestinian teenagers were killed and a fourth was seriously wounded in an explosion in northern Gaza. Palestinian medics initially said the youths, ages 15 to 19, were killed when Israeli artillery hit a house, but the Israeli military said the teens had been handling explosives.

Relatives of the teens said they had found two unexploded Israeli tank shells and were trying to dismantle them to sell the explosives when the blast went off.

Also Friday, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli artillery fire on northern Gaza, hospital officials said. Israel frequently fires artillery in response to rocket fire from Gaza.

Hamas sent mixed signals to Abbas on Friday. It ordered its 3,000-strong militia off the streets, two weeks after deploying the gunmen in a challenge to the regular, Abbas-allied security forces. Hamas officials said Friday the unit was temporarily withdrawing to six bases and insisted it would not be disbanded.

Regular Palestinian security forces took over the positions from the militia, including a sandbagged post near the Egyptian Airlines office in Gaza City. Only a few dozen militiamen appeared in the streets Friday, protecting Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh as he attended noon prayers in the Jebaliya refugee camp near Gaza City.

Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions agreed in talks Friday to cool tensions and form a committee to work out their differences, officials said.

A statement issued after talks between all Palestinian factions suggested that Hamas could through the dialogue accept Israeli-Palestinian agreements and Israel’s presence in all areas except those captured in 1967.

The document called for the reestablishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the body that signed many peace agreements with Israel, and for it to include representatives of all factions.

An agreement based on such a platform, if it is supported by Hamas, would imply Hamas recognition of the agreements, and Israel’s control of all areas except those it occupied in 1967.

A senior Fatah lawmaker involved in the talks, Azzam al-Ahmed said that the statement did not constitute a final agreement, only a platform for further dialogue between the sides.

Haniyeh reacted coolly Friday to Abbas’ threat to hold a referendum on a document drafted by senior militants from Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah movement, who are serving time in Israeli jails. The document calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

Haniyeh said that since a parliamentary election was held just four months ago, there was no need for a referendum. “We are moving according to our vision and political program, and the decision of the people,” he said. “And the people decided at the ballot box.”

The Hamas government has rejected international demands that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.

Haniyeh said he’d discuss the referendum idea with Abbas in coming days, and check on legal issues.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Abbas does not have the authority to call a referendum, while senior Fatah officials said Abbas can do so by presidential decree. The legal dispute is likely to escalate should Hamas decide to fight a referendum.

Abbas, elected separately last year, has been seeking to curb Hamas’ power, removing authority over security forces from the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry and asserting that he has the authority to conduct peace negotiations with Israel.

Hamas formed the new security unit in defiance. The rifle-toting gunmen, wearing black T-shirts, khaki vests and camouflage pants, took up positions on street corners and busy intersections last week.

Hamas officials said the force was needed to ensure quiet in the chaotic Gaza Strip. But the deployment set off more than a week of clashes with Fatah-dominated security forces in Gaza.

Reflecting Israeli concerns about the situation, officials confirmed Friday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz agreed to permit Abbas to obtain new arms to beef up his presidential guard. Israel normally opposes any arms entering the Palestinian areas, fearing they will be used against Israel.

Amos Gilad, a top Defense Ministry official, said arms would come in limited numbers and from a third country, not Israel.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat, an Abbas ally, said the Israeli claim that it was allowing weapons to come in from a third country was “baseless,” though he conceded there are concerns for Abbas’ safety in the current environment. He said Israel should not meddle in internal Palestinian affairs.

AP-ES-05-26-06 2024EDT