Abbas calls referendum on Palestinian statehood

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was headed for a showdown with the Hamas government after winning the green light on Tuesday to hold a referendum on implicitly recognising Israel.

The decision by the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to endorse his referendum plan came despite fierce opposition from Hamas, which argued more time was needed for talks to resolve deep differences with Abbas’s own Fatah faction.

Abbas’s spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeina said an exact date for the referendum would be declared within 48 hours—still leaving open the possibility of a last-minute compromise. Polling would take place exactly 40 days after the announcement, Abu Rudeina added.

There was little expectation, however, that Hamas is about to change its tune, although a new poll showed the vast majority of Palestinians both back Abbas’s call for a referendum and intend to vote in favour of a document first drawn up by a cross-party group of senior militants held in Israeli prisons.

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said a further round of talks would be “the only way to resolve our differences”.

“We cannot accept that the dialogue has failed. We cannot decide this after just one or two additional meetings, as there are many strategic questions to be addressed,” he said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting in Gaza City.

The document at the centre of the referendum calls 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.

Such a blueprint would undercut Hamas’s long-time platform of refusing to recognise Israel or disavow the use of violence, even within the Jewish state’s borders, as well as bounce it into a coalition government with Abbas’s Fatah faction, which it trounced in a January parliamentary election.

In a bid to end growing financial and security crises, Abbas had served Hamas last month with a 10-day deadline, which expired at midnight, to agree on solving the crisis and accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, or he would put the statehood initiative to a referendum.

The Hamas government’s hard-line stance has led it to be boycotted and starved of aid from the European Union and the United States, bringing the Palestinian Authority to the brink of financial meltdown.

A power struggle between the Fatah-controlled security services and Hamas has also degenerated into deadly clashes in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas’s reticence about a referendum stems in part from the polls, which show voters are likely to give the prisoners’ plan overwhelming backing.

A survey released by the West Bank’s Bir Zeit university found that 77% of Palestinians intend to vote in favour of the blueprint and that electoral support for Hamas had declined by 13%.

Former Parliament speaker and PLO executive committee member Rawhi Fattuh said there would be no need for a referendum should Hamas accept the blueprint at any stage before polling day.

“The referendum is not itself a goal,” Fattuh told Agence France-Presse.
“It’s a way to break the isolation imposed on the Palestinian people.”

The prospect of a deal had long looked bleak amid vicious Fatah-Hamas rivalry, which has left at least 16 people dead since early May.

In the latest outbreak, five Palestinians were wounded in an anti-tank rocket attack on Tuesday against the Gaza City headquarters of the Fatah-dominated preventive security service.

Hamas gunmen on Monday stormed an office of the Abbas-controlled Palestine TV, threatened journalists and ransacked equipment in the southern town of Khan Yunis, in the first such attack since the Islamists took office.—AFP

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