Hamas rejected over the weekend a threat by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas to hold a referendum over a prisoners' document that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
Meanwhile, Hamas's new security force returned to the streets of Gaza City on Saturday. The force had left the main intersections on Friday as part of efforts to ease tensions with Fatah.
A senior Fatah official said Hamas also rejected Abbas's demand to join the PLO, saying it would consider such a move only after implementing reforms within the PLO. According to the official, the outside leadership of Hamas was behind the movement's hard-line position.
"Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh is a good man, but the outside leadership of Hamas is in control now" he said. "We must arm Fatah in order to create a balance of power to avoid civil war. Hamas is becoming increasingly intolerant to criticism and they are preparing an army for a possible confrontation."
In response to Abbas's threat to hold a referendum, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, "This threat is an attempt to put pressure and impose preconditions and a certain policy on Hamas. The idea of the referendum is an attempt to bypass the choice of the Palestinian people and the political program of Hamas, which won the support of the majority of the Palestinians in the last parliamentary election."
Abu Zuhri also dismissed as "unjustified" Abbas's 10-day ultimatum to Hamas to accept the document or else he would call a referendum within 40 days.
In a development that is likely to hamper Abbas's initiative, representatives of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails issued a statement on Saturday distancing themselves from the 18-point document. The document, which was issued earlier this month, carries the signature of Abdel Khalek al-Natsheh, a senior Hamas member incarcerated in Israel, as well as Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Islamic Jihad.
Saturday's statement could signal the beginning of a split in Hamas over the controversial document. "This document does not represent the views of all the [Hamas] prisoners," the statement said. "It represents only those who signed it. The Hamas prisoners did not participate in the drafting of the document and we learned about it only through the media."
Abbas's threat to hold a referendum was made at the beginning of a two-day "national dialogue" conference that was launched in Ramallah and Gaza City on Thursday. The discussions ended Friday without any agreement on resolving the ongoing power struggle between Abbas's Fatah party and Hamas, including the proposed referendum.
A statement issued by the participants at the end of the discussions said they had agreed to form a "committee for national dialogue" that would work toward preventing civil war and enhancing unity. However, the statement stopped short of endorsing the prisoners' document. "The conference appreciates the prisoners' document and all other documents that were brought before it," it said. "We salute the prisoners and call for their release."
Saleh Ra'fat, member of the PLO executive committee who attended the meeting, said Hamas and Fatah representatives failed to resolve their differences, especially with regard to accepting United Nations resolutions related to the Palestinian issue. "Hamas did not accept the UN resolutions and Arab initiatives to resolve the conflict," he said. "Hamas also refused to endorse the prisoners' document as the only document on the agenda of the conference."
Mahmoud Ramahi, secretary-general of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council, explained that the document was drafted only in one prison by 20 percent of all the inmates in Israeli jails. "This document does not represent all the prisoners," he added. "We will continue our discussions over the next few weeks to try to resolve the differences."
Deputy PLC speaker Hassan Khraisheh disclosed that during the conference he proposed the establishment of a technocrat government comprising academics and independent figures as a solution to ending the international boycott of the Hamas cabinet. He said the proposal won the support of some senior officials from Hamas and Fatah. "The only problem now is whether the international community would accept this solution," he said.