By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 11, 2006
RAMALLAH, West Bank, June 10 -- Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas moved ahead Saturday with a referendum on the shape of a future Palestinian state, setting July 26 as the date for a vote that he suggested is the only way to end economic sanctions crippling the Palestinian government.
The decision was announced on a day when seven Palestinian civilians -- killed Friday by what witnesses said was Israeli artillery fire -- were buried in the Gaza Strip. Abbas's decision brought immediate condemnation from his rivals in Hamas. The radical Islamic movement had sought more time to discuss the 18-point document that Palestinians will be asked to approve in the referendum.
Hamas officials warned that pushing ahead with a vote at a time of increasing Israeli military operations would exacerbate fighting between supporters of Hamas and of Abbas's Fatah party that has killed or wounded more than a dozen people in recent weeks.
The document, presented last month by leaders of Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions who are in Israeli prisons, endorses the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It also calls for internal political reforms, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel and confining armed operations against Israel to the occupied territories, among other items.
"I am convinced that at the time we agree to this document, the siege against us must end," Abbas said during a 30-minute speech here at the government compound known as the Muqata . "No one will be able to defend the principles behind this siege afterward."
Since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January, foreign donors have suspended much of the aid that the Palestinian Authority counts on for more than half of its roughly $2 billion annual budget. Israel has also ceased the monthly transfer of $55 million in tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian government, an amount equal to nearly half the authority's payroll.
The government has not paid the majority of its more than 150,000 employees in three months. The result has been rising poverty, unemployment and unrest in the territories -- a worsening situation Abbas and his rivals in Hamas refer to as a siege.
But Hamas has refused to recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by previously signed agreements with the Jewish state -- conditions that foreign donors have set for resumption of aid. Hamas, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, has called on the nearly 4 million Palestinians in the territories to be patient in the face of economic decline and rising factional violence.
Hamas endorses a state that would encompass territory that now includes Israel. Instead of firing the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, Abbas has called for a public vote on the prisoners' document.
Although the referendum would be nonbinding, an endorsement of Abbas's approach could lead to a restoration of aid, bring international pressure to bear on efforts to revive moribund peace talks with Israel and press Hamas to alter its position. A recent poll showed that 77 percent of Palestinians support the prisoners' document.
"I am responsible for all of our people, every one of them," said Abbas, who is the Palestinian Authority's president as well as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which represents Palestinians inside and outside the territories. "So I am responsible to say that we must go forward to set aside this pain and suffering we are living through."
Abbas appeared here before a friendly crowd of fellow Fatah leaders, legislators squarely in the secular-nationalist camp, trade union officials and the head of the Palestinian stock exchange. But he faces enormous challenges in staging a vote that leaders of Hamas, now running the Palestinian ministries, have called an illegal attempt to undermine their government.
"When the political leadership fails to reach a consensus, the president is certainly within his powers to go to the people," said Hanan Ashrawi, a legislator from the Third Way party. "This is one way of rescuing the public from degenerating into a violent dialogue."
Abbas said the referendum would be canceled -- even as late as one day before the vote -- if the two movements agreed on a unified political program based on the prisoners' document.
"In my assessment, our brethren from Hamas will agree on the formula of the prisoners' document," said Qaddura Faris, a Fatah leader who is involved in the talks with Hamas.
But there were no Hamas representatives in the audience, evidence of the obstacles in the way of a Fatah-Hamas compromise.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator, said in a telephone interview that Palestinians should boycott the vote. Masri called the referendum "a place of disagreement" and said the two parties should "meet in order to build an understanding between the parties.
"The one who announced the referendum will bear the responsibility for the dangerous consequences that may result," Masri said.
Abbas spoke at the start of a three-day mourning period for those killed Friday on a beach in Gaza, including six members of the Ghaliyah family who had been picnicking. Most shops remained closed in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, the streets largely empty.
The family was buried Saturday in Beit Lahiya, a town in northern Gaza. The funeral was attended by thousands of Palestinians, many of them chanting, "revenge, revenge." At the start of his speech, Abbas called the incident a "massacre," asking, "What can we do in the face of these crimes committed against civilians without warning?"
Israel has suspended the shelling of Gaza pending the results of an investigation into the incident. Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, the military's chief of staff, said in a news conference Saturday that an initial review found that neither the navy nor the air force fired the shells. He said the investigation was focusing on land-based artillery, but left open the possibility that Palestinians could have been responsible.
Hamas's military wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, warned Friday that it would no longer abide by a cease-fire with Israel it last agreed to in March 2005. Before dawn Saturday, the group launched more than a dozen rockets toward Israel, although there were no reports of injuries.
Abbas faced pressure to delay setting the date for the referendum in the midst of what some Palestinians have called an escalation in Israeli military operations, designed to stop the near-daily rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel. But Qais Abdul Karim, a legislator from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, said a delay would not resolve the challenges facing the Palestinians.
"These factional tensions were present before the January elections," said the legislator, who is a member of the PLO Central Committee. "Many people said the election shouldn't take place because of it. But we said at the time that postponement would only lead to more chaos. We say the same thing now."