In a dangerous game of brinkmanship with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who leads the main opposition Fatah party, issued a presidential decree on June 10 setting July 26 as the date for a referendum on a "prisoners' document for national accord".
The document was drafted in May by five Palestinian militants held in Israeli jails — highly popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti; Hamas militant Abdel Khalek al Natsheh; Abdel Rahim Malouh, the deputy head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; Mustafa Badarneh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and Islamic Jihad's Sheikh Bassam al Sadi.
The document called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and the recognition of the right to return of Palestinian refugees driven out of Palestine by the Zionist colonisation. In addition, the document also called for acts of armed resistance to take place only inside Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967, for the integration of Hamas and Islamic Jihad into the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the "legitimate and sole representative" of the Palestinian nation.
Abbas and the Fatah-dominated PLO have sought to use the document to further Fatah's attempts to regain control of the Palestinian political agenda after it lost control of the PA government to Hamas in the January parliamentary elections.
On June 11, Natsheh from Hamas and Sadi from Islamic Jihad announced that they were no longer signatories to the document. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Natsheh and Saadi's accused Abbas of "unacceptable abuse" of the prisoners' document for factional purposes.
Hamas has challenged the legality of the presidential decree issued by Abbas. According to Hamas and other PA legislators, there is no provision for referenda under the PA's Basic Law (constitution). Only the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the PA parliament, can amend laws to allow for such a referendum.
In a June 13 article for the Media Monitors Network, Samar Assad, executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Center, wrote: "Given its majority in the PLC, Hamas can easily vote that the referendum, without an existing law, is unconstitutional and thus the outcome of the vote on it would be irrelevant. However, once the PLC renders such a vote, the government must implement the decision and prevent a referendum from taking place". This would "intensify the rift between the government and the presidency and put the government's authority over the people and PA institutions to a new test".
Assad went on to write that the Hamas interior minister "could order police not to provide security on the day of the referendum. But with officers loyal to Fatah and President Abbas, those orders could be ignored. The Hamas minister of education could close down the schools where the voting is to be held. But with police and senior education officials loyal to Fatah, those orders could also be ignored.
"Hamas also runs the risk of a high turnout at the polls. Whatever the technical legality of the referendum, the voter turnout and results will be used to further isolate the government internationally and will be the start of the government's internal isolation.
"If the referendum passes by a large percentage but without the approval of the legislature, the question of its legality will shadow the results. And as the case with Hamas, turnout is crucial for Abbas. Hamas may conduct a successful boycott of the referendum... In such a case, Abbas' credibility and that of the referendum would not sit well with the Palestinian people and, most importantly, with the international community, which is Abbas' impetus in pushing forward the referendum. Furthermore, an unsuccessful referendum will raise questions and doubts over Abbas' power and authority within the PA."
From Green Left Weekly, June 21 2006.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.