Abbas Delays Setting Date for Referendum

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

JERUSALEM, June 6 -- Facing political and practical challenges, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gave Hamas more time Tuesday to endorse the creation of a future state on all territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war before he sets a date for a referendum on the issue.

Abbas's decision to give Hamas until Friday to accept a two-state solution to the conflict, something the radical Islamic movement has rejected since its creation nearly two decades ago, comes in the midst of rising factional tensions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A morning mortar attack on the Palestinian preventative security headquarters in Gaza wounded six people, including four officers.

But the delay also reflects the logistical difficulties Abbas would face in staging a referendum that Hamas, now running the Palestinian Authority's day-to-day operations, opposes in principle. Hamas officials have warned that they would not allow the vote to proceed, even though it could give them cover to moderate their hard-line position toward Israel at a time when foreign donors are demanding they do so in return for future aid.

Abbas -- who in addition to being president of the Palestinian Authority is head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Fatah movement -- met for several hours Tuesday in the West Bank city of Ramallah with the PLO executive committee, which voted to give him the authority to hold the vote.

But he told the committee that he would wait three days before setting a date to allow Hamas more time to endorse what is known as the prisoners' document, an 18-point declaration of principles signed last month by the leaders of Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions being held in Israeli jails.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the committee, told reporters in Ramallah that "before the end of the week, President Abbas will hold a news conference to announce the holding of the referendum and the beginning of the process for carrying it out." But Abed Rabbo also said negotiations with Hamas would continue even after the date is set, saying the vote could be canceled up until the last moment.

The main element of the prisoners' document calls for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Israel still occupies those areas, although it evacuated troops and settlers from Gaza last year. Hamas calls for a Palestinian state across territory that includes Israel, while Abbas favors its creation alongside the Jewish state.

With opinion polls showing broad support for the proposal, Abbas is hoping that a nonbinding vote on the matter will provide a clear expression of Palestinian desires for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and help revive negotiations with Israel.

A Bir Zeit University poll released Tuesday showed that 77 percent of those questioned would vote in favor of the prisoners' document, which demands internal Palestinian political reforms, the creation of a national unity government, the freeing of Palestinian prisoners and the right of refugees to return to their homes. The document also calls for armed and political opposition to the Israeli occupation to be focused in the territories, rather than inside Israel.

"At the end of the day, we are heading toward a vote," said Saeb Erekat, a Fatah legislator and the chief Palestinian negotiator with Israel. Abbas "must go back to the people if he wants to avoid chaos in the streets. I think the only option now, even if the date was not set today, is for the Palestinians to vote."

Foreign donors suspended most aid to the Palestinian Authority following Hamas's victory over Fatah in January elections that brought the Islamic movement into government for the first time.

Israel also froze the monthly transfer of roughly $55 million in tax revenue it collects for the Palestinian government, an amount equal to nearly half its monthly payroll. Most of the authority's more than 150,000 employees have not been paid in three months, and unemployment and poverty rates are climbing in the territories.

But Abbas has declined to exercise his authority to fire Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, for refusing to endorse a two-state solution, renounce violence and accept previously signed agreements that implicitly recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. Instead he has chosen the referendum to challenge Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Hamas's imprisoned leaders play an important role in the movement's collective decision-making, along with leaders in exile and those inside the territories. While Hamas's more hard-line exile leadership rejected the document, Haniyeh and others in the government called it a starting point for discussion.

But Hamas prisoners called Tuesday for Abbas to cancel plans for a referendum and allow talks to continue between the two main Palestinian political movements. The six-point statement, posted on the Hamas Web site, states that the vote would be illegal and could cause more bloodshed.

"There's an opportunity for the success of the national dialogue," Haniyeh said after the three-day delay was announced to allow more time for talks. "But we reject the threat of using" deadlines.

Earlier in the day, three 60mm mortar shells were fired at the Palestinian preventative security service headquarters in Gaza. The attack wounded the four Palestinian officers and two maintenance workers.

Also Tuesday morning, Palestinian gunmen fired at least five rockets at the southern Israeli city of Sderot, including one that smashed into a home and another that landed near a school. One Israeli woman was wounded by shrapnel. Sderot's mayor warned the Israeli government that he would evacuate the city if the military did not stop the rocket fire.

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