- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Islamic militant Hamas government withdrew its militia from the streets of Gaza yesterday, pulling back from an increasingly bloody confrontation with security forces loyal to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas.

The conciliatory signal came as Hamas grappled with Mr. Abbas’ ultimatum that it either accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel — implicitly recognizing the Jewish state — or be challenged in a national referendum. Hamas appeared divided, with some in the group threatening to fight the referendum idea and others embracing it.

The power struggle between Hamas and Mr. Abbas has intensified in recent weeks, with street fighting leaving 10 dead and dozens wounded.

In other developments yesterday, three Palestinian teenagers were killed and a fourth was seriously wounded in an explosion in northern Gaza. Palestinian medics initially said the youths, ages 15 to 19, were killed when Israeli artillery hit a house, but the Israeli military said the teens had been handling explosives.

Also yesterday, a Palestinian farmer was killed by Israeli artillery fire on northern Gaza, hospital officials said. Israel frequently fires artillery in response to rocket fire from Gaza.

Hamas sent mixed signals to Mr. Abbas yesterday. It ordered its 3,000-strong militia off the streets, two weeks after deploying the gunmen in a challenge to the regular, Abbas-allied security forces. Hamas officials said the unit was temporarily withdrawing to six bases and insisted it would not be disbanded.

Regular Palestinian security forces took over the positions from the militia, including a sandbagged post near the Egyptian Airlines office in Gaza City. Only a few dozen militiamen appeared in the streets, protecting Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh as he attended noon prayers in the Jebaliya refugee camp near Gaza City.

Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions agreed in talks yesterday to cool tensions and form a committee to work out their differences, officials said.

Mr. Haniyeh reacted coolly to Mr. Abbas’ threat to hold a referendum on a document drafted by senior militants from Hamas and Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement, who are serving time in Israeli jails. The document calls for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, the areas Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Mr. Haniyeh said that since a parliamentary election was held just four months ago, there was no need for a referendum. “We are moving according to our vision and political program, and the decision of the people,” he said. “And the people decided at the ballot box.”

The Hamas government has rejected international demands that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.

Mr. Abbas, elected separately last year, has been seeking to curb Hamas’ power, removing authority over security forces from the Hamas-controlled Interior Ministry and asserting that he has the authority to conduct peace negotiations with Israel.

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