RAMALLAH, West Bank, (Reuters) – President Mahmoud Abbas laid down a challenge to Hamas on Thursday, calling on the militant Islamic group and other factions to back a Palestinian proposal that seeks a negotiated settlement with Israel.
Abbas, speaking on the first day of a two-day ‘national dialogue’ designed to resolve acute differences between Hamas and his own Fatah movement, gave delegates 10 days to reach an agreement on the plan or face a popular vote.
“If you do not reach an agreement (in 10 days), I would like to tell you frankly that I will put this document to a referendum,” Abbas told the delegates. “This is not a threat.”
If agreement is not reached, the referendum would be held in early August, Abbas said in an announcement that many Palestinian officials described as a surprise.
The proposal, which has been drawn up by senior figures from Hamas, Fatah and the Islamic Jihad group who are in prison in Israel, calls for a negotiated settlement with Israel if the Jewish state withdraws from West Bank land occupied since 1967.
It also calls for a unity government and an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in Jerusalem. Other aspects include the right of Palestinian refugees to return to a Palestinian homeland.
Many elements of the proposal are unlikely to be accepted by Israel, which has said it intends to maintain several large settlement blocs on occupied West Bank land and considers Jerusalem the “eternal and undivided capital of Israel”.
Israeli officials said they would not comment on what has been dubbed the “prisoners’ resolution”.
Several Palestinian factions, including Fatah, have signed up to the prisoners’ proposal but senior Hamas figures have not backed it. Hamas does not recognise Israel’s right to exist, something that is implicit in the prisoners’ proposal.
Some Hamas officials said they did not mind the prospect of a referendum, but criticised Abbas for setting conditions before the ‘national dialogue’ was fully under way.
“We are not afraid of a referendum, the election was a referendum and the majority of the people chose us,” said Salah al-Bardaweel, a spokesman for Hamas in parliament.
“Unlike what Abu Mazen said, the document was issued by prisoners in one prison and not by prisoners in all prisons,” he pointed out, referring to Abbas by his popular name.
“The document needs to be studied,” he added.
If a referendum were held and the prisoners’ proposal were accepted, it would be a blow to Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in January and came to power in March.
Other Hamas officials in the West Bank also said they would accept a referendum if it happened, but said they hoped instead to reach an agreement on the document in the next 10 days. Hamas leaders in Gaza, the Hamas base, were more critical.
“This is an attempt by Abu Mazen to pre-empt the outcome of the dialogue… It is an attempt to pressure us to accept the entire document as it has been presented,” said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman.
Islamic Jihad, a staunchly militant group that has carried out suicide bombings in recent weeks, said it supported the prisoners’ proposal but did not back the idea of a referendum.
Abbas’s challenge came after hours of speech-making in which Hamas and Fatah leaders had tried to minimise their differences, the result of clashes between rival gunmen in recent days and an on-going power struggle between Abbas and Hamas’s leadership.
Speaking via video-link from his Gaza stronghold, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, had told delegates in Ramallah that he was committed to unity and determined to prevent Palestinians fighting one another.
“Our meeting today aims to cement our national unity,” Haniyeh, who is prevented from going to the West Bank because of Israeli travel restrictions, told a packed audience.
“I assure our hero prisoners that we will not bring pain into your hearts by having a Palestinian-on-Palestinian struggle … Our difference is with the Israeli occupation,” he said.
Before making his challenge, Abbas was also conciliatory.
“We are here because we are at odds,” he said, speaking from a raised platform next to other Palestinian leaders.
“The danger has reached every house. Our national project is in severe danger,” an animated Abbas said.
“Why should we fight each other when we have … a bigger and greater problem,” he said, referring to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its military presence near Gaza.