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Hamas Steps Back in Gaza

Times Staff Writer

Nine days after sending a new militia into the streets of Gaza, the Hamas-led Palestinian government Friday withdrew the force to bases and barracks in an effort to cool down fighting with security men in the rival Fatah faction.

In the northern Gaza Strip, four Palestinians died in cross-border artillery fire from Israeli forces. Israel has fired thousands of shells into northern Gaza in recent months in an effort to quell rocket fire by Palestinian militants.

One of the dead was a farmer killed in his field by a shell, but Israeli officials said the other three, all men in their 20s, might have been handling explosives and been killed in an accidental blast.

The pullback of Hamas’ 3,000-member police force came after a series of confrontations with Fatah fighters that have left at least 10 people dead over the last two weeks. The militia was deployed in defiance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had vetoed its creation.

Hamas stressed that it was not disbanding the force, popularly dubbed the “black militia” for the color of the T-shirts worn by its members.

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Yousef Zahar, one of the militia’s commanders and the brother of Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Mahmoud Zahar, told reporters that the force would abandon its prominent positions in downtown Gaza City and “concentrate in particular locations.” He added that the militia would “be prepared to rush to the scene when needed to confront chaos.”

The gesture by Hamas came as the group debated how to respond to an initiative by Abbas for a referendum on Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Such a measure would amount to at least implicit recognition of Israel, which Hamas has rejected.

Abbas said if Hamas did not endorse the proposal within 10 days, he would hold a referendum in the next two months.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, speaking at Friday prayers in a Gaza mosque, suggested that Hamas would not change its doctrine of rejecting Israel’s right to exist and ignoring past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“We will not recognize the legitimacy of the occupation, we will not renounce [armed] resistance, and we will not recognize unjust agreements,” said Haniyeh, a senior leader in the Hamas movement.

Since taking power in March, the Hamas-led government has been the target of an international aid cutoff that has left the Palestinian Authority close to collapse. Donors that include the U.S. and European nations demand that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce violence.

Abbas’ referendum plan could give Hamas a face-saving means of modifying its position. But it could also set off new and more violent fighting between Hamas and Fatah.

Pollsters have predicted that a referendum in support of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital, would win the backing of a solid majority of the Palestinian public.

Many pollsters and analysts attributed Hamas’ victory in January parliamentary elections not to wide support for the militant group’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist, but to voters’ anger over corruption and inefficiency in the long-ruling Fatah party.

Hamas carried out a long campaign of suicide bombings against Israel but halted the attacks when it began running candidates in municipal and territory-wide elections.

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Special correspondent Fayed abu Shammalah in Gaza City contributed to this report.


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