Hamas moves to withdraw police force

Pullback comes after series of fights


JERUSALEM -- Nine days after sending a new militia into the streets of Gaza, the Hamas-led government yesterday withdrew the force to bases and barracks in an effort to cool down fighting with security men from the rival Fatah faction.

In the northern Gaza Strip, four Palestinians died in cross-border artillery fire from Israeli forces. Israel has fired thousands of shells into northern Gaza in recent months in an effort to quell rocket fire by Palestinian militants.

One of the dead was a farmer killed in his fields by a shell, but Israeli officials said the other three, all men in their 20s, may have been handling explosives and been killed in an accidental blast.

The pullback of Hamas' 3,000-member police force came after a series of confrontations with Fatah fighters that have left at least 10 people dead over the past two weeks. The militia was deployed in defiance of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had vetoed its creation.

Hamas stressed that it was not disbanding the contingent, popularly dubbed the "black militia" after the color of the T-shirts worn by its members.

Yousef Zahar, one of the force's commanders and the brother of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, told reporters the force would abandon its prominent positions in downtown Gaza City and "concentrate in particular locations."

He added that the militia would "be prepared to rush to the scene when needed to confront chaos."

The gesture by Hamas came as the group debated how to respond to an initiative by Abbas for a popular referendum on Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem. Such a measure would amount to at least implicit recognition of Israel, which Hamas has until now rejected.

Abbas said if Hamas did not endorse the proposal within 10 days, he would hold a referendum in the next two months.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, speaking at Friday prayers in a Gaza mosque, suggested the group would not change its doctrine of rejecting Israel's right to exist and ignoring past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

"We will not recognize the legitimacy of the occupation; we will not renounce [armed] resistance and we will not recognize unjust agreements," said Haniyeh, a senior leader in the Hamas movement.

Since taking power in March, the Hamas-led government has been the target of an international aid cutoff that has left the Palestinian Authority close to collapse. Abbas' referendum plan could give Hamas a means of modifying its position. But it could also set off more violent fighting between the factions.

Pollsters have predicted a referendum in support of a state in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital, would win the backing of a solid majority of the Palestinian public.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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