Palestinians form c'tee on violence

Hamas pulls militia off Gaza streets in move to reduce internal friction.

hamas militia 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
hamas militia 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
The rival Hamas and Fatah groups agreed Friday to form a committee to iron out differences in an effort to avoid further clashes between the sides, officials said. The sides were meeting in a second day in an effort end fighting that has claimed 10 lives in the Gaza Strip over the past week. Earlier Friday, the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government withdrew a controversial 3,000-strong private militia from the streets of Gaza, saying it wanted to reduce friction with Fatah. The move came on the second day of Hamas' talks with Fatah, aimed at halting violence and resolving the deadlock that has paralyzed the Palestinian government and frozen relations with most of the world. The talks focused on Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' demand that Hamas accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. In a bold move, Abbas said Thursday he would hold a national referendum on the proposal in July if Hamas, which is committed to Israel's destruction, doesn't accept the plan within 10 days. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas is expected to meet with Abbas next week to discuss the proposal, Hamas officials said. But in a speech Friday, Haniyeh hinted that he opposes a referendum. "This (a referendum) is not a substitute for the political program of the government that was approved in parliament," he said in a sermon after noon prayers at a Gaza mosque. Haniyeh said Hamas will stick to its political program. The black-clad Hamas militia, deployed last week, has been at the center of growing tensions in Gaza that have left many fearing all-out civil war. Ten people have been killed in Fatah-Hamas clashes over the past week, and a senior commander from Fatah was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt. Hamas officials said they were not disbanding the unit, only removing it from public areas to avoid friction. The gunmen were not in sight Friday, and the streets of Gaza City were quiet. "We are complying with orders," said Youssef Zahar, a leader of the militia. He said Interior Minister Said Siyam, a top Hamas official, ordered the forces to gather in bases and help regular police forces, which are dominated by Fatah, if requested. He said the unit also would conduct its own patrols, but did not say when this would happen. Haniyeh said Hamas insists the militia be folded into the police force. "It will be a police force that will wear the uniform of the police," he said. Still, the decision signaled a concession by Hamas, which only days earlier said it had no intention of withdrawing the force. Fatah officials want the militia disbanded, but say individual members could become members of existing police units. Tensions have been steadily rising since Hamas defeated Abbas' Fatah party in January legislative elections. Abbas, elected separately last year, has been seeking to curb Hamas, removing authority over security forces from the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry and asserting that he has the authority to conduct peace negotiations with Israel. In response, Hamas formed the new security unit in defiance of Abbas. Further enraging Abbas, it appointed as head of the unit a senior militant high on Israel's most-wanted list and suspected in the deadly 2003 bombing of a US diplomatic convoy. The rifle-toting gunmen, wearing black T-shirts, khaki vests and camouflage pants, took up positions on street corners and busy intersections last week.