Hamas-led PA Parliament Defers Decision on Abbas' Referendum

Parliament extends talks with Chairman until June 20; jailed Hamas men retract support of prisoners' paper.

The Hamas-dominated Palestinian legislature on Monday delayed a vote against Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' referendum on a plan that implicitly recognizes Israel, choosing instead to extend a dialogue with Abbas.

With its decision Monday, parliament put off a vote on the referendum plan until June 20. Hamas leaders said the move was aimed at giving ongoing negotiations with Abbas a chance to succeed.

During the parliamentary session, Hamas lawmakers challenged the legality of Abbas' decree on Saturday announcing the July 31 referendum.

The Hamas-led government has resisted Abbas' attempts to persuade it to endorse the proposal, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The referendum debate is taking place amid escalating violence between Israel and Hamas, complicating Abbas' efforts.

Meanwhile, Hamas offices in Syria also swore it would do all it can to thwart the referendum.

"Even if it (the referendum) is carried out, Hamas would not recognize it or accept its outcome whatever it might be," Moussa Abu Marzouk, the deputy head of Hamas' political bureau, told The Associated Press in the Syrian capital.

Abu Marzouk did not say what steps Hamas would take against the referendum, but he asserted that Hamas "would do its best to stop" it.

Earlier on Monday, the stormy legislative session on the referendum began with several hundred government employees demonstrating to demand salaries that have been withheld for more than three months because of the Western aid cutoff.

"We want milk, we want food," protesters shouted. Dozens of angry demonstrators banged on the chamber's door after the session began.

Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat urged lawmakers to "rally around efforts to unite the people, not divide them."

Prisoners retract from draft proposal On Sunday the Hamas prisoner who helped draft a proposal that would implicitly recognize Israel withdrew his name from the document on behalf of all Hamas prisoners, deepening Palestinian divisions ahead of a referendum on the plan.

A top Islamic Jihad prisoner who helped author the proposal withdrew his name from the document as well. Spokesmen from the groups said the two retracted their support to protest a referendum on the document called by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Senior prisoners from Hamas and the rival Fatah movement drafted the platform in an Israeli prison last month as a way toward ending rising internal tensions. The plan calls for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, implicitly recognizing Israel's existence.

In a statement issued in the Gaza Strip, Abdel Khaleq Natche, the top Hamas prisoner held by Israel said he was no longer a party to the document.

He accused Abbas of "unacceptable abuse" of the document and exploiting it for political gain. He also said it falsely implied there were divisions between Hamas prisoners, politicians in Gaza, and political leaders living in exile.

"The document now is completely a Fatah document," said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, who read the statement on behalf of Natche and Bassem al-Saadi, the Islamic Jihad prisoner who also withdrew his name.

PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said, "it is the right of the prisoners to retract their support, but they will have to face the consequences of the referendum results."

Hamas has repeatedly said it opposes the referendum. It has demanded further dialogue with Abbas in hopes of bridging their differences over the plan.

Haniyeh meets Abbas Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, met Sunday night for another round of talks on the referendum.

The two met on Saturday to discuss the referendum, but the meeting ended with no agreement.

Abbas and Haniyeh met in Gaza for their first round of talks along with Interior Minister Said Siyam, also of Hamas. Abbas said that if the sides reach agreement on the document ahead of the planned vote, he will call off the referendum.

"As chairman of the PLO Executive Committee and president of the Palestinian Authority, I have decided to exercise my constitutional right and duty to hold a referendum over the document of national agreement," Abbas declared in a decree read by an aide.

Swiftly rejecting the announcement as a "declaration of a coup against the government", Mushir al-Masri, a leading Hamas legislator, urged Palestinians to boycott the vote.

"Whoever announced the referendum should shoulder the responsibility for the dangerous consequences that may result," Masri said.