The Hamas-led government agreed on Wednesday to withdraw a controversial private militia from public areas of Gaza in an agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' rival Fatah movement aimed at halting weeks of bloody infighting as they headed for a showdown over Abbas's threat to hold a referendum on a statehood proposal.
The agreement came after hours of talks mediated by Egyptian diplomats and joined by Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a top Hamas official.
Abbas has given the Hamas government until the end of the week to accept a manifesto calling for a Palestinian state that implicitly recognizes Israel or face a vote on the issue.
The president would issue a decree on Saturday setting the stage for the referendum if the Hamas Islamists still refused to back the proposal, Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said.
"President Abbas will issue the decree on Saturday," Abu Rdainah told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
With shootouts between Hamas and Fatah now frequent, many Palestinians fear a referendum could trigger more violence.
But after a meeting brokered by Egyptian officials in the impoverished Gaza Strip, Fatah and Hamas leaders urged calm.
"We order men from Fatah and Hamas to respect the holiness of Palestinian blood," said Khalil Al-Hayya, a Hamas leader.
Fatah lawmaker Majed Abu Shammala said both sides hoped to end internal violence that has killed nearly 20 people in Gaza in the past month. Previous agreements to end factional bloodshed have not lasted long.
Hamas trounced Fatah in January parliamentary elections and has been locked in a power struggle with Abbas ever since.
The Islamists, who seek to destroy Israel, reject the statehood manifesto penned by prisoners in an Israeli jail and say a referendum would be illegal so soon after elections.
Abbas, a moderate who was elected separately early last year in a ballot Hamas did not contest, had set a Tuesday deadline for the Islamists to embrace the manifesto but held off after what officials said were appeals by Arab leaders.
Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, Abbas did not give a specific time for issuing the decree on the referendum, saying it would be in two or three days.
A referendum would be seen as a confidence vote on the Hamas government, whose election led the West and Israel to cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority. Opinion polls show most Palestinians support the manifesto.
The document implicitly recognizes Israel. It calls for a Palestinian state on all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Israel rejects the proposal. It has long insisted on keeping large Jewish settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank.
The most Hamas has proposed is a long term truce if Israel gives up the West Bank and East Jerusalem, far short of meeting the demands of Israel or Western countries.
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, urged Abbas to keep discussing the prisoners' document.
He also reiterated Palestinians would avoid civil war.
"The battle with the Israeli occupation is tough and long and we should not be dragged into side battles," Haniyeh said.
A Hamas gunman was seriously wounded in an exchange with Fatah fighters in Gaza early yesterday, medics said.
On Tuesday, three mortar bombs were fired at a Gaza compound of the Preventive Security service, which is loyal to Abbas. Two officers and four maintenance men were wounded.