RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has set the date for a referendum asking Palestinians to support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, a vote the ruling militant Islamic group Hamas quickly rejected and urged voters to boycott.
The referendum, scheduled yesterday for July 26, would in effect ask Palestinians to decide whether they accept Israel's right to exist, a question that has been at the center of the power struggle between Abbas' more moderate Fatah movement and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
After two weeks of failed talks, Abbas' announcement sets the two parties on a collision course, as their gunmen skirmish in the streets of the Gaza Strip, and as Hamas said it was canceling a 16-month truce with Israel after an Israeli artillery round killed a family of Palestinians on a Gaza beach.
Fatah, which was soundly defeated in parliamentary elections in January, recognizes Israel and seeks to return to the negotiating table with Israel to work out a permanent peace settlement. But Hamas, the Islamic militant group responsible for scores of suicide bombings in Israel, remains officially committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.
Since Hamas took control of parliament and the Palestinian Authority in March, international sanctions have all but crippled the government and intensified the economic hardships in Gaza and the West Bank. Those sanctions were imposed because of Hamas' refusal to disarm, recognize Israel or acknowledge existing agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Making his announcement yesterday during a live television address at the presidential compound in Ramallah, Abbas recounted the mounting economic and political crises harming Palestinian society and offered the referendum as a solution to those problems.
The referendum would ask voters if they support a document, written by Palestinian prisoners serving time in Israeli jails, calling for a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, lands captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The document was written by prominent figures from both Hamas and Fatah, despite their remaining in custody.
Public opinion polls suggest that a significant majority of Palestinians would vote "yes" in the referendum, as a means to restart peace talks.
This is not surprising, given that there is little new in the document to most Palestinians. But it nails down basic principles of negotiations - such as recognition of Israel - that were approved in the past by the Palestinian leaders but have been thrown into question by Hamas' victory.
Abbas said that if Palestinians back him through the referendum, Hamas would find it difficult not to accept the public's will - and by extension Israel's right to exist - and bring an end to the economic sanctions and political stalemate.
"When we reach an agreement over the prisoners' document, the siege will end," Abbas said. "The referendum is the only way to end this conflict."
But Hamas, fearing that the referendum is intended to undermine their party's new government, dismissed Abbas' proposal and urged Palestinians not to participate in the poll.
"We have to rule out the idea of a referendum, and this is what I will tell Abu Mazen [another name for Abbas]," Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, told reporters before meeting with Abbas last night.
In a letter to Abbas last week, Haniyeh wrote: 'The idea of a referendum carries serious dangers for the unity of the Palestinian people, and I fear that it may provoke an historic division that will take decades to overcome."
Abbas' challenge to Hamas marks a bold step for a Palestinian leader often dismissed by his critics for being ineffective and weak. According to public opinion polls, Abbas' popularity has grown in recent weeks, surpassing Haniyeh's.
"I am the president, and I am the person responsible for every single person and his needs," Abbas said during his speech.
Abbas' announcement, however, was largely eclipsed by national mourning over the deaths of eight people, including seven members of one family, who were killed by an Israeli artillery attack while picnicking at a beach in Gaza.
Abbas began his speech by denouncing the Israeli shelling, calling it a "massacre of innocent people" and asking the international community to help bring an end to Israeli attacks.
Hamas responded yesterday to the attack by launching 15 homemade rockets against Israel. There were no reports of injuries in Israel from the rockets, although four Palestinians were injured when one of the rockets went astray, the Associated Press reported.
Since February 2005, Hamas has remained committed to a cease-fire with Israel, helping to maintain relative calm for many months. But Israeli authorities were on alert yesterday for attacks and increased security in major cities.
As a political party responsible for running the Palestinian Authority, Hamas would have a lot to lose if it pursues a new round of violence against Israel, an almost-certain recipe for bringing more military action by Israel against the West Bank and Gaza.
Hamas must also contend with its challenge from Abbas, who went to great lengths during his speech to explain his right, as president, to issue the decree ordering the referendum. The Hamas-controlled parliament is planning to convene a special session this week to debate the legality of the referendum, Palestinian Authority officials said.
With six weeks to go before the referendum, there will be more than enough time for parliament and the public to discuss its merits. Moments after Abbas' speech, that discussion was beginning on the streets of Ramallah.
"We already had elections. Why do we have to have a referendum?" asked Mahmoud Shabeh, 46, sitting outside a shopping area in downtown Ramallah. Shabeh, a stonecutter from a village near Ramallah who supports Hamas, said he would vote against the referendum because he does not think the Palestinians should accept the existence of an Israeli state.
"The referendum will not solve the problems between Hamas and Fatah," he said. "It will make them worse."
But Mahmoud Zeyadeh, 50, who works for an organization promoting workers' rights, paused during a walk to explain that he was an enthusiastic supporter of the referendum, saying it would break the deadlock between Hamas and Fatah and force Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians.
"After the referendum, no one can say that Israel doesn't have a partner for peace," he said.
Omar Rahhal, 36, a human rights activist from Ramallah who attended Abbas' address, said that the president made a mistake in calling for a referendum without first encouraging all the political parties to sit down, and he said he is worried that Abbas' move will only touch off more violence between the political factions.
"It's not civil war, but the fighting will continue," he said.