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From Israeli jails, Hamas activists press middle way

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"Nobody should exploit this document and say that it represents one person or one organization," he said.

Hamas is expected to do everything in their power to avoid a referendum on the prisoners' document, which risks a public rebuke of their ideology of refusing to recognize Israel, analysts say.

A two-month-old survey taken by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki on the eve of the inauguration of the Hamas government found that two-thirds of Palestinians support mutual recognition with Israel and a two-state solution. Some 75 percent wanted Hamas to negotiate with Israel.

"This is their Achilles' heel," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East export at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center. "Hamas realizes that they weren't elected for their ideology, and most likely such a referendum would pass."

Tuesday, some 400 civil servants demonstrated outside Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's Ramallah office, clanging on pots and shouting "we need a program.''

"The referendum might finish this crisis,'' said protester Mohaamad Sirhan Abu Eesa, a teacher from Deir Dibwan near Ramallah. "We might have a national unity government. We might even get the salaries.''

Hamas has four centers of influence: Damascus, Gaza, the West Bank, and the prisons. Hamas's prisoner leadership wields an equally influential voice as politicians in Gaza and outside the Palestinian territories in setting movement policy, says Abdel Rahman Zaidan, who serves as public works minister in the all-Hamas cabinet.

In a political system caught between liberation movement and an embryonic sovereign government, time in an Israeli jail is a powerful résumé-builder for politicians. With thousands of Palestinians arrested by the Israeli army and border police over the five-year uprising, the detainees have prisoner-of-war status among Palestinians.

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