GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Thousands of Hamas (search) supporters demonstrated against Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas' (search) peace efforts as leaders of the militant group said they were pulling out of talks with Palestinian officials aimed at ending attacks on Israelis.
A Hamas refusal to negotiate could force Abbas to either crack down on the group and risk a civil war, or allow it to continue bombing and shooting attacks that would derail U.S.-backed peace efforts.
Meanwhile, Palestinian security officials were pursuing other means to disarm gunmen, finalizing a plan to buy their illegal weapons, according to several Palestinian officials and militia members, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
As part of the U.S.-backed "road map" (search) to Palestinian statehood, the Palestinians have to disarm and dismantle militant groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in shootings and bombings in 32 months of fighting. Abbas has been trying to negotiate with the militias rather than use force, and said earlier this week he was optimistic he could broker a truce within a week.
Palestinian officials say the Hamas walkout Friday may not be final and there's still a chance for a truce. Hamas would not risk a confrontation with security forces and would quickly resume talks, they said.
Palestinian Cabinet Minister Ziad Abu Amr, Abbas' liaison to Hamas, blamed Israel's overnight killing of two Hamas militants near the West Bank city of Tulkarem for the breakdown in talks.
Hamas officials, however, said they were angry at Abbas' concessions at a Mideast summit Wednesday in Jordan. At the meeting with President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, called for an end to the "armed intefadeh," or uprising.
"We were shocked when we saw Abu Mazen and his new government giving up all the Palestinians' rights," said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas official. "Abu Mazen committed himself in front of Bush and Sharon to very dangerous issues that closed the door of dialogue between us."
Thousands of Hamas supporters, some masked and waving green Hamas flags, held a series of protest rallies throughout Gaza on Friday.
In the largest, more than 4,000 Hamas supporters demonstrated against the summit, some chanting "Abu Mazen, the homeland is not for sale." Hundreds of other Hamas activists protested in Lebanon.
Officials in Washington said they were not surprised that Hamas, which is vehemently opposed to peace with Israel, broke off the talks.
"All parties agreed -- and said they agreed -- that terrorism has to stop and that all parties have an obligation to fight terror," said Michael Anton, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council. "Those who pursue terror have made it clear they want to prevent peace."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration was examining means to cut off assistance, including arms and financing, to any terror group.
"All I can tell you at this point is we're committed, Arab leaders are committed , others are committed to helping the Palestinians establish a security service than can deal with the violent groups, can prevent them from carrying out violence, can prevent them from acquiring arms and financing," he said.
Other efforts to clear the streets of gunmen continued, with Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan offering to buy illegal weapons carried by members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militia linked to Abbas' Fatah movement, according to several Palestinian officials and militia members. The buyback was to start in the coming days, they said.
An Al Aqsa leader said Dahlan is offering $6,000 -- more than twice the black market value -- for each rifle, but other officials gave lower figures. Dahlan also offered a signup bonus of at least $6,000 to Al Aqsa members who leave the militia and join the security forces, militiamen said.
Those amounts are enormous in the West Bank and Gaza, where a teacher makes about $330 a month, and unemployment is over 50 percent.
Hamas official Ismail Abu Shanab said members of the group planned to meet Saturday with Islamic Jihad, a smaller militant group, and ask it to end their cease-fire talks as well. Islamic Jihad officials said they had not decided whether to leave the talks, but said they would never take up arms against Abbas.
Abu Amr said he was confident Hamas would return to the negotiations "hopefully by Sunday or Monday" and said contacts between the Palestinian leadership and Hamas leaders abroad were proceeding.