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(photo credit: AP [file])
A referendum on a document drafted by some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails will be held on July 26, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Saturday.
Later in the evening, Abbas met PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Interior Minister Said Siyam, both of Hamas, to discuss the increasing tensions between the two over the referendum.
Haniyeh said he accepted the idea of dialogue [between different Palestinian factions], but rejected the referendum.
Abbas' announcement drew sharp criticism from Hamas and several other Palestinian factions, which accused Abbas of seeking to topple the Hamas government through the referendum.
The referendum, the first of its kind in the PA-controlled territories, will take place between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. and will include only one question: "Do you support the prisoners' 'national reconciliation' document?"
PA officials here confirmed that the referendum was designed to replace the Hamas government. "On July 27 there will be a new government in Palestine," said one official. "Those who vote yes will actually say no to Hamas."
The announcement was read on Palestine TV by one of Abbas's top aides, Tayeb Abdel Rahim, who urged all Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem to participate in the vote.
"The Palestinian Central Elections Commission will organize, administer and supervise the referendum," he said. "It will also take all necessary measures to ensure freedom of the vote so that it would reflect the will of the absolute majority of the Palestinians."
Abdel Rahim added that the prisoners' document, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories that were captured by Israel in 1967 but does not explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist, would be published in the Palestinian media so that the public could become acquainted with it.
The document also declares the "right of return" for all Palestinian refugees and calls for continuing terrorist attacks in "occupied lands."
Explaining his decision to call a referendum, Abbas said his main goal was to end the international sanctions imposed on the Palestinians since Hamas won the parliamentary elections last January.
"For months, our people have been facing a siege and the international community no longer cares about our cause," he said. "This is a tragedy and a difficult problem. Our people are facing economic and financial sanctions and the question is when will this suffering end."
Abbas said attempts to end the sanctions failed because of the persistence of the international community. "We tried to lift the siege, but to no avail," he said. "The international community wouldn't allow us to bring in money and they told us that they don't care any more."
Abbas hailed the prisoners' document, saying it provided the only way out of the current crisis. "The prisoners thought better than us and came up with this document," he said. "It will lead our people to a happy ending."
Dismissing charges that the referendum was illegal, Abbas said the PA Basic Law does not oppose such a move. "Since there is nothing in the law that prohibits it, it is permitted," he said.
Abbas also denied that the referendum was aimed at replacing the Hamas government. He pointed out, however, that if Hamas accepted the controversial document before July 26, there would be no need to hold the referendum.
Hamas leaders, strongly condemning Abbas's decision, called on Palestinians to boycott the referendum. "This will be another black day for the Palestinians," a senior Hamas official in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post. "It will be another nakba [catastrophe] for our people. This will inevitably lead to civil war."
Another Hamas official branded Abbas and his top Fatah aides as "traitors" and accused them of "organizing an auction for selling the land of Palestine."
"Shame on him and his Fatah party," he said. "Today Abbas and Tayeb Abdel Rahim declared war on the majority of the Palestinians who voted for Hamas."
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said his movement would work to thwart the planned referendum. "The referendum is unacceptable and we won't allow it to take place," he cautioned.
Islamic Jihad also vowed to foil the referendum and criticized Abbas for making the announcement while Palestinians were mourning the civilians who were killed by the IDF in the Gaza Strip on Friday.
"Only yesterday we were united against the occupation because of the killings," said Islamic Jihad leader Khaled al-Batsh. "Abbas has now redivided us by announcing his referendum."
In yet another challenge to Abbas, representatives of the Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails announced on Saturday their decision to withdraw their support for the document because of the referendum. The document carries the signatures of two imprisoned Hamas leaders.
The Hamas prisoners said that when they signed the document they were hoping that it would serve as an incentive for uniting the Palestinians. They accused Abbas of exploiting the document to blackmail Hamas and score political gains.
Meanwhile, Hamas gunmen on Saturday fired several shots at the convoy of Gen. Rashid Abu Shabak, commander of the PA's Preventative Security Service, during a funeral for one of his officers in Gaza City.
Abu Shabak was not hurt, but three of his bodyguards were wounded, one of them seriously.
The attack took place during the funeral of Bassem Kutub, head of the Special Operations Force, who was assassinated while he was driving his car in Gaza City late Friday night.
It was not clear if the Hamas gunmen who opened fire at the funeral were trying to kill Abu Shabak. Two weeks ago a large bomb was discovered and safely detonated near Abu Shabak's home. Several officers belonging to the force have been targeted by Hamas gunmen over the past few weeks.
Last week three rockets were fired at Abu Shabak's headquarters in Gaza City, wounding six officers.