JERUSALEM — Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic militant organization, found itself increasingly backed into a corner last week as support mounted on multiple fronts for Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, in his effort to win endorsement of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Abbas, who had been on the defensive after Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in January, shocked critics and supporters alike two weeks ago with his call for a referendum on the so-called prisoners’ plan, which implicitly recognizes Israel. The document, drafted by Palestinian security prisoners, calls for a Palestinian state in pre-1967 borders and an end to attacks on Israelis within Israel proper. Hamas insists it has a mandate from voters to reject Israel’s existence, and has denounced the proposed referendum as illegal under Palestinian law.
This week, however, a poll released by Birzeit University in Ramallah showed that 77% of Palestinians support the prisoners’ document, and fully 83% favor a Palestinian state in the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Further embarrassing Hamas, Abbas’s Fatah movement swept 80% of the vote in student elections last weekend on five campuses in Gaza, Hamas’s main stronghold.
As his 10-day ultimatum for Hamas to accept the prisoners’ plan expired this week, Abbas agreed to meet in Yemen with the Syrian-based leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, for talks mediated by Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh.
On the Palestinians’ streets, violence between Hamas and Fatah gunmen continued on an almost daily basis. Both parties have fielded rival private militias in attempts to gain control of the streets. On Monday, dozens of Hamas fighters stormed a Palestinian Authority television station in the Gaza town of Khan Yunis and burned equipment. Just hours earlier, a bomb went off in a Gaza refugee camp, killing a Hamas man and wounding two of his relatives, including an 8-year-old girl.
Intra-Palestinian tensions are further fueled by the financial crisis gripping the territories since Hamas took control of the P.A. Most Western nations have cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, and Israel has ceased transferring tax receipts that it collects on the Palestinians’ behalf.
Israeli leaders have been tight-lipped about Abbas’s referendum initiative, encouraged by the weakening of Hamas but uneasy at the growing momentum of a plan that would spell a return to the 1967 borders, something that most Israelis reject. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was elected in March on a platform that called for Israel to set its own borders unilaterally, without waiting for a Palestinian partner.
Under American and international prodding, Olmert has publicly pledged to try negotiating with Abbas before taking any unilateral steps. The pressure mounted this week, as Olmert met with Israel’s closest Arab neighbors, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah. Both leaders called on Olmert to avoid unilateral steps and enter serious negotiations with Abbas. Mubarak softened his message, however, saying after his 90-minute meeting with Olmert that if talks were to fail, “we’ll discuss and find other solutions.”
Returning to Jerusalem after his meeting with Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh, Olmert told his weekly Cabinet meeting that the prisoners’ plan is an internal Palestinian matter.
In apparent bid to strengthen Abbas, however, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz authorized an unprecedented visit this week by a top Fatah leader, former Gaza security chief Muhammad Dahlan, to Hadarim prison, where former West Bank Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is serving multiple life sentences. Barghouti led the prisoners’ team, which included leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions within the prison. Dahlan reportedly planned to consult with Barghouti on further steps to win Hamas endorsement of the plan.
The head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin, told a Knesset committee this week that all Palestinian government services will collapse if the P.A. is not supplied with funds — a development that will not serve Israel’s interests. He noted that the Palestinian economic crisis is weighing heavily on the Hamas-led government and that there have been a number of recent attempts to smuggle suitcases jam-packed with foreign currency into Gaza.
Diskin said it is still not clear whether Abbas will be able to carry out his referendum plan, and he urged Israel to avoid interfering in the matter.