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Hamas Showing no Signs of Removing Militia from Gaza City Streets

The Hamas-led government's 3,000-member private militia showed no signs of withdrawing from Gaza's streets Thursday despite a deal with the rival Fatah movement to remove it from public areas.

A spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior ministry, Khaled Abu Hilal, claimed the force had been repositioned, but there was no change on the ground. Black-clad gunmen stood guard on street corners throughout the coastal strip, shifting positions at times but remaining in full public view.

The government agreed to pull back its militia in the Egyptian-mediated agreement Wednesday aimed at halting weeks of bloody infighting.

It was not immediately clear why the agreement had not been implemented, or if it would meet the same fate as a deal last month in which Hamas agreed to pull back its force, only to return it to the streets several days later.

The latest deal came amid a deeper disagreement over President Mahmoud Abbas's ultimatum that Hamas recognize Israel or face a referendum on the idea. Abbas, who heads Fatah, has given the Islamic group until the weekend to respond.

In unrelated violence, a Palestinian policeman and two militants were killed overnight by Israeli forces manning the Gaza-Israel border fence, Palestinian security and hospital officials said. A third militant wounded in the shooting died in the hospital Thursday morning. Four Palestinians were wounded, including a seven-year-old child, the officials said.

Israel said soldiers, a tank and helicopters fired at three persons crawling toward the fence after dark and hit two of them. The army had no word on other injuries.

Control of security forces has been at the center of a power struggle brewing between Abbas and Hamas since the Islamic group won parliamentary elections in January. Hamas deployed the force last month throughout Gaza, sparking violence that has claimed 16 lives.

"They are going to be in places away from the public. They are not going to be visible to people," government spokesman Ghazi Hamad said after Wednesday's meeting. Under the arrangement, the militia is to be folded into the official Palestinian police force, he said.

Abbas has said the Hamas force is illegal but could be folded into existing security agencies.

More violence had preceded the deal. A senior Fatah-linked police official escaped an apparent assassination attempt Wednesday when a bomb went off prematurely, injuring an assailant. On Tuesday, rocket-propelled grenades struck a pro-Fatah security force base. Fatah blamed Hamas for both incidents.

The two sides are in a heated dispute over a document calling for implicit recognition of Israel, which was formulated by politically powerful Hamas and Fatah prisoners held by Israel. Hamas' exiled leadership, which has the final say in policy decisions, has refused to endorse the plan.

Abbas has backed the so-called "prisoners document" as a way to end crippling economic sanctions against the Palestinians and allow him to restart peace talks with Israel.

Abbas is expected to set a date for the referendum on Saturday, aides say.

Opinion polls have shown widespread public support for the document, suggesting Hamas could be embarrassed in a referendum.

Once Abbas sets a date for the referendum, the vote would take place about 45 days later. While Abbas says negotiations can continue until the vote, he has ruled out making any changes to the document. Abbas also said Wednesday he would welcome international monitors to observe the vote.

Israel and Western donors have suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in cash transfers to the Palestinians, demanding the Hamas-led government renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas has rejected the conditions, despite a cash crunch that has left it unable to pay salaries to thousands of civil servants.