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Hamas challenges legality of Abbas' referendum

Avi Issacharof and AP; Ha'aretz, 12.06.06

The Palestinians' Hamas-dominated parliament mobilized on Monday to try to block Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' efforts to hold a national referendum on a proposal that would implicitly recognize Israel's right to exist.

Abbas, a moderate from Fatah, quickly endorsed the document, but Hamas leaders, who are sworn to Israel's destruction, have balked at some of the elements.

At the parliament session Monday, Hamas lawmakers challenged the legality of Abbas' decree on Saturday announcing the July 31 referendum, though it was unclear they could muster the necessary two-thirds majority to prevent it from taking place.

The Hamas-led government has resisted Abbas' attempts to persuade it to endorse the proposal, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The referendum debate is taking place amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, complicating Abbas' efforts.

The stormy legislative session on the referendum Monday began with several hundred government employees demonstrating to demand salaries that have been withheld for more than three months because of the Western aid cutoff.

"We want milk, we want food," protesters shouted. Dozens of angry demonstrators banged on the chamber's door after the session began.

Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat urged lawmakers to "rally around efforts to unite the people, not divide them."

Prisoners retract from draft proposal
On Sunday the Hamas prisoner who helped draft a proposal that would implicitly recognize Israel withdrew his name from the document on behalf of all Hamas prisoners, deepening Palestinian divisions ahead of a referendum on the plan.

A top Islamic Jihad prisoner who helped author the proposal withdrew his name from the document as well. Spokesmen from the groups said the two retracted their support to protest a referendum on the document called by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Senior prisoners from Hamas and the rival Fatah movement drafted the platform in an Israeli prison last month as a way toward ending rising internal tensions. The plan calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, implicitly recognizing Israel's existence.

In a statement issued in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Khaleq Natche, the top Hamas prisoner held by Israel said he was no longer a party to the document.

He accused Abbas of "unacceptable abuse" of the document and exploiting it for political gain. He also said it falsely implied there were divisions between Hamas prisoners, politicians in Gaza, and political leaders living in exile.

"The document now is completely a Fatah document," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who read the statement on behalf of Natche and Bassem al-Saadi, the Islamic Jihad prisoner who also withdrew his name.

PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "it is the right of the prisoners to retract their support, but they will have to face the consequences of the referendum results."

Hamas has repeatedly said it opposes the referendum. It has demanded further dialogue with Abbas in hopes of bridging their differences over the plan.

Haniyeh meets Abbas
Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, met Sunday night for another round of talks on the referendum.

The two met on Saturday to discuss the referendum, but the meeting ended with no agreement.

Abbas and Haniyeh met in Gaza for their first round of talks along with Interior Minister Said Siyam, also of Hamas. Abbas said that if the sides reach agreement on the document ahead of the planned vote, he will call off the referendum.

"As chairman of the PLO Executive Committee and president of the Palestinian Authority, I have decided to exercise my constitutional right and duty to hold a referendum over the document of national agreement," Abbas declared in a decree read by an aide.

Swiftly rejecting the announcement as a "declaration of a coup against the government", Mushir al-Masri, a leading Hamas legislator, urged Palestinians to boycott the vote.

"Whoever announced the referendum should shoulder the responsibility for the dangerous consequences that may result," Masri said.