The Palestinian standoff intensified Sunday after Hamas rejected an ultimatum from President Mahmoud Abbas to endorse a plan implicitly recognizing Israel, and a pregnant woman was killed during a clash between the rivals’ forces in Gaza.
In a rare dose of good news, some Palestinian public workers began withdrawing money from their banks, the first time they have been paid in three months because of a Western aid cutoff. Also, Israel’s premier talked to Egypt’s president about resuming peace talks with the Palestinians.
Abbas will order a referendum on a plan drawn up by top Palestinian prisoners in an Israeli jail calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem alongside Israel, a Fatah official said Sunday. Abbas set a Tuesday deadline for Hamas agreement.
“If Hamas doesn’t give a positive answer, Abbas will issue a presidential decree calling for a referendum,” Fatah official Azam al-Ahmad said at a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where the unsuccessful talks have been taking place.
An Abbas-Hamas struggle over control of security forces has ignited several violent incidents. Hamas formed its own militia last month, and on Saturday, a similar Fatah force took to the streets in the West Bank town of Jenin. On Sunday, Fatah militants said they have a force of 1,250 gunmen ready to deploy in Gaza as well.
‘Take to the streets’
Group spokesman Abu Qusai told The Associated Press that if no agreement is reached over the Hamas militia, “we will have to take to the streets.”
Violence erupted in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis between forces loyal to Fatah and the new Hamas militia, security officials said. A 20-year-old woman, eight months pregnant, was killed when masked gunmen opened fire on a car carrying her and two Hamas militants, they said. One of the militants was critically wounded.
Gunmen from the two sides then battled in Gaza City, security officials said. Three bystanders were killed in a clash between Fatah and Hamas forces, and relatives of the dead gathered at the hospital where the bodies were taken and shouted anti-Hamas slogans.
Near the scene of the shooting, at the entrance to the Shati refugee camp, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was consulting with Fatah representatives about the document. No progress was reported.
The Hamas takeover of the Palestinian government has led to a cutoff of funds by Israel, the United States and European Union, which list Hamas as a terror organization. The bankrupt government was unable to pay its 165,000 workers, who make up the largest sector in the Palestinian economy.
On Sunday, the Palestine Bank in Gaza said it was opening its ATMs, and the 40,000 lowest-paid workers began withdrawing money. The government said it would give them each 1,500 shekels — about $331 — but the rest of the employees would have to wait.
Dozens lined up at automated teller machines in Gaza City. Bahar Habashi, 43, a father of seven who works as a doorman at a school, said the money would not come close to meeting the needs of his family.
“I don’t think this money will stay in my pocket more than an hour,” he said, “but I am going to spare 50 shekels to buy candy and fresh fruit for my children.”
The costly confrontation over recognition of Israel played out against the background of Israeli plans to set its own border unilaterally if peace negotiations fail. Israel refuses to talk to a Palestinian government headed by a movement that does not accept the Jewish state.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert traveled to Egypt on Sunday to discuss the situation with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, often a mediator in Israeli-Palestinian disputes.
Mubarak opposes unilateral Israeli steps, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration prefers negotiations. She told CNN on Sunday that the “final status is really something that has to be mutually acceptable” to Israel and the Palestinians.
Olmert repeated his offer to meet Abbas to discuss resumption of peace negotiations, but he did not give a date for what would be the first Israel-Palestinian summit since February 2005.
“I really hope that our Palestinian partners will take advantage of this opportunity and will implement all their commitments so that it will be possible to proceed according to the ’road map,”’ Olmert said, referring to the U.S.-backed peace plan.
Mubarak and Olmert said they agreed negotiations must be pursued.
Palestinians, meanwhile, were focused on their internal disputes.
Haniyeh rejected Abbas’ deadline for the referendum, calling the proposal illegal. That set up a head-on political confrontation between Hamas and Fatah.
“The local basic law and the advice which we got from experts in international law say that referendums are not permitted on the Palestinian land,” Haniyeh said.
A poll released last week showed that nearly 90 percent of Palestinians favor the prisoners’ agreement. Al-Ahmad said Abbas would consider calling elections for president and parliament if Hamas did not abide by the results of a referendum.
Hamas, formed in 1987 at the beginning of a Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation, holds that the Middle East must be entirely Islamic. Jews can live in the region only under Islamic rule, not in an independent state.
Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks since the violence resumed in 2000.