Despite deal to remove it, Hamas force still on Gaza streets

Egypt mediated deal on Wednesday in which Hamas gov't agreed to withdraw forces from Gaza streets; still no withdrawal.

The Hamas-led government's 3,000-member private security force remained on Gaza's streets on Thursday with no sign of any withdrawal despite a high-profile deal with the rival Fatah movement to remove it from public areas. The government agreed to pull back its militia in an Egyptian-mediated agreement Wednesday aimed at halting weeks of bloody infighting. A spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior ministry, Khaled Abu Hilal, claimed the force had been repositioned, but there was no change on the ground. Black-clad gunmen stood guard on street corners throughout the coastal strip, at times shifting positions but remaining in full public view. It was unclear if Wednesday's agreement would meet the same fate as a deal last month in which Hamas agreed to pull back its force, only to return it to the streets several days later. The deal came amid a deeper disagreement over an ultimatum by President Mahmoud Abbas to recognize Israel or face a referendum on the idea. Abbas, who heads Fatah, has given the Islamic group until the weekend to respond. In an unrelated incident, a Palestinian policeman and two militants were killed overnight by Israeli forces manning the Gaza-Israel border fence, Palestinian security and hospital officials said. A third militant wounded in the shooting died in the hospital Thursday morning. Four Palestinians were wounded, including a seven-year-old child, the officials said. Israel said soldiers, a tank and helicopters fired at three persons crawling toward the fence after dark and hit two of them. The army had no word on other injuries. The Hamas militia has been at the center of a brewing power struggle. Hamas deployed the force last month throughout Gaza, sparking violence that has claimed 16 lives. "They are going to be in places away from the public. They are not going to be visible to people," government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said after Wednesday's meeting. Under the arrangement, the militia is to be folded into the official Palestinian police force, he said. Senior officials from both sides, including Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, joined the daylong talks. "We agreed on practical steps to guarantee the end of the bloodshed in Palestinian streets," Hamad said. Hamas agreed to withdraw its force from public view late last month. But within days, the gunmen returned to their positions. It was not immediately clear why latest the Hamas-Fatah deal had not been implemented. Abbas has been vying for power with Hamas since the Islamic group defeated Fatah in legislative elections in January. The feud has revolved around control of the security forces. Abbas has said the Hamas force is illegal but said it could be folded into existing security agencies. More violence preceded the deal. Early Wednesday, a senior Fatah-linked police official escaped an apparent assassination attempt when a bomb went off prematurely, injuring an assailant. And a day earlier, a pro-Fatah security force base was struck by rocket-propelled grenades. Fatah blamed Hamas for both incidents. The two sides are in a heated dispute over a document that calls for implicit recognition of Israel. Abbas has given Hamas until the weekend to accept the document, signed by a group of well-known Palestinian militants jailed by Israel, or face the voters in a referendum. Abbas has endorsed the so-called "prisoners document" as a way to end crippling economic sanctions against the Palestinians and allow him to restart peace talks with Israel. Backing away from open confrontation, Abbas on Tuesday extended a deadline for Hamas to accept the document. Abbas is now expected to set a date for the referendum on Saturday, aides say. Israel and Western donors have suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in cash transfers to the Palestinians, demanding the Hamas-led government renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas has rejected the conditions, despite a cash crunch that has left it unable to pay salaries to thousands of civil servants. The Palestinian document was formulated by politically powerful Hamas and Fatah prisoners held by Israel. But Hamas' exiled leadership, which has the final say in policy decisions, has refused to endorse the plan. Opinion polls have shown widespread public support for the document, a result that could deeply embarrass Hamas. Once Abbas sets a date for the referendum, the vote would take place about 45 days later. While Abbas says negotiations can continue until the vote, he has ruled out making any changes to the document. Abbas also said Wednesday he would welcome international monitors to observe the vote.