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Hamas' Tight Spot

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated: June 6, 2006

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Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has given the Hamas-led government until the weekend to agree on a Palestinian state alongside Israel (Haaretz). If Hamas refuses, Abbas says he will put the idea—proposed in a document drawn up by jailed Palestinian leaders (al-Jazeera)—to a public referendum by mid-July. Recent polls show the measure would pass by a large margin (WashPost), putting pressure on Hamas to agree. But the militant Islamist group has refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel since being elected to lead the PA in January. Their decision has cost the PA millions in foreign aid, leading to an economic crisis. Ziad Asali of the American Task Force on Palestine tells Bernard Gwertzman that Palestinians overwhelmingly support negotiating with Israel to end their dismal standoff, and see Abbas' leadership on the issue as "a welcome change." And CFR fellow Steven Cook tells Gwertzman that Abbas' move is a "shrewd" one that puts pressure on Hamas while constraining Israel's actions.

The proposal that would go to voters is a five-page draft (MEMRI) negotiated in prison by prominent jailed leaders of both Fatah and Hamas. They included Marwan Barghouti, perhaps the most popular Palestinian leader. The proposal calls for a Palestinian state to exist next to Israel, advocates a Palestinian unity government, states that Jerusalem should be the capital of a Palestinian state, and allows for a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if Israel withdraws to the so-called 1967 borders. The idea has support in the Arab world: a similar proposal, known as the Arab Peace Initiative, called for Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders and accept returning Palestinian refugees. It was put forward by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and endorsed by the Arab League, which offered to recognize Israel and declare a comprehensive peace if Israel agreed to the terms. Israeli President Ehud Olmert said in Egypt June 4 that he would meet Abbas for talks, raising a potential opening for movement on the peace process (al-Jazeera).

Hamas' opposition may be weakening. PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has indicated Hamas may consider the document, after the militant wing of Islamic Jihad announced June 1 it would accept the proposal (JPost). However, Haniyeh has also said Abbas has no authority to call a referendum (LAT), setting up a potential clash.

Meanwhile, Palestinian banks have begun to use their own money to pay PA government workers (Haaretz), after the Hamas government missed its third monthly payment of salaries (LAT). Some 165,000 government employees, more than half of them members of the security forces, have gone without salaries since March, when the PA ran out of money. After Palestinian policemen smashed windows and shot at Gaza's parliament building, Haniyeh promised some salaries would be paid. But the larger question of where the impoverished Hamas government will find the funds to keep operating remains unanswered.

Ghassan Rubeiz, former Middle East director of the World Council of Churches, writes in the Daily Star that Palestinians must stop their self-defeating ways. The Palestinian violent resistance is pointless and damaging, he says. "The nature of chaotic Palestinian military strategy extends the life of Israel's hegemony," he writes. "Too many Palestinians are choosing to fight and lose, to fight more and lose more. For how long will militant Palestinian ideologues perceive victory in failure?"

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