RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) – Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has signed a decree to hold a controversial referendum opposed by the government of the radical Islamists Hamas.
Under the terms of the decree, the first-ever Palestinian referendum will be held in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on July 31.
The referendum document will call for a national unity government, an end to attacks in Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel on land conquered by the Jewish state in 1967.
If accepted, the blueprint would undercut Hamas’s long-time platform of refusing to recognise Israel or disavow violence even within Israeli borders, as well as bounce it into a coalition with Abbas’s Fatah faction.
Abbas, in contrast, has long championed a negotiated settlement to the conflict with Israel and criticised suicide bombings.
The president’s office had earlier said that Abbas would issue a statement on the subject of the referendum at his West Bank headquarters at 1:30 pm (1030 GMT) on Saturday before taking questions from journalists.
Abbas decided to push ahead with the referendum, which he announced two weeks ago, after talks aimed at resolving a series of disputes between Hamas and his own Fatah movement failed to make progress.
The two sides have been at loggerheads over a range of issues, in particular control of the security services which remain under the remit of Abbas despite Hamas’s crushing parliamentary election victory over Fatah in January.
Hamas has set up its own rival paramilitary force, whose deployment on the streets of Gaza resulted in deadly clashes with members of the official security services.
The Islamists have consistently argued against a referendum, saying that the differences between the factions should be resolved through dialogue rather than the ballot box.
Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya said in an interview published Friday that he saw no need for the referendum.
“We don’t need a referendum. I have no doubt that we will reach understandings,” Haniya told Israel’s mass-selling Yediot Aharonot daily.
“We are doing everything possible to make the national dialogue succeed. The sword of time should not be placed at our throat.”
Polls have shown that more than three-quarters of Palestinian voters back the contents of the blueprint which is at the centre of the referendum. The document was drawn up by senior prisoners from all the main Palestinian factions who are being held by the Israeli authorities.
Hamas’s victory over Fatah in January is widely believed to have been based on voter frustration over governmental incompetence and corruption rather than an endorsement of the hardline tactics of Hamas, which is officially committed to the destruction of the Jewish state and has carried out dozens of anti-Israeli suicide attacks.
Hamas’s opposition to the referendum received backing Friday from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number-two in the Al-Qaeda terror network.
“I call upon them to reject any referendum on Palestine, because Palestine is not for bargaining or bidding,” Zawahri said during a videotape aired on Al-Jazeera.