More than a million residents of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem are expected to vote today in elections that will see Hamas end Fatah's monopoly of control over the Palestinian Authority.
Divisions in the mainstream Fatah, which have helped reduce its lead over Hamas in recent weeks, cost the life of an activist in the West Bank city of Nablus yesterday when he was shot by a rival group while putting up an election poster.
Palestinian Authority security personnel will be deployed in force throughout the occupied territories in the hope they can prevent further violence. Fatah and Hamas have urged supporters to leave their weapons at home.
Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli Prime Minister, said he hoped Palestinians would not "choose again the extremists who have led them from tragedy to tragedy and to sorrowful lives".
In his first big speech in the post, he made clear that Israel needed to withdraw from large parts of the West Bank, but warned that the Palestinians would have to "dismantle the terrorist groups" if this was to be by the "preferred option" of a negotiated agreement.
Sticking closely to what had already been assumed to be the programme of Ariel Sharon, seriously ill in hospital, Mr Olmert told the annual Herziliya conference: "In order to ensure the existence of a Jewish national home, we will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives."
But he warned that Israel would keep "security zones", the main settlement blocks and Jerusalem as the Israeli capital under Jewish sovereignty.
While two new opinion polls show Fatah's lead increasing after steady erosion, it is too early to rule out the possibility that it could be slender enough to force Fatah to seek a coalition with Hamas.
The most respected Palestinian polling organisation - run by Khalil Shikaki - shows Fatah, which supports a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel, enjoying a 5 per cent lead over Hamas, which is formally committed to the eventual elimination of Israel.At the very least this would give Hamas a substantial opposition role as the second biggest party in the Palestinian Legislative Council.
But Ziad Abu Amr, the PLC member who is publicly backed by Hamas but is widely respected as a genuine independent, said that it was "convenient" for Hamas to be in opposition because it could turn every Fatah mistake into a "net gain for Hamas". But, he continued, Hamas "should be allowed to participate because this would have a sobering effect. It will become more realistic, more mundane".
Active campaigning was prohibited yesterday after a frantic few days in which a highlight was a fierce and unprecedented TV debate aired by the Lebanese station LBC between Mohammed Dahlan, the most prominent Fatah leader in Gaza, and Mahmoud Zahar, the Gaza-based leader of Hamas.
Dr Zahar accused Mr Dahlan of having been behind the "torture" of himself and other Hamas officials in the 1990s. Mr Dahlan accused Hamas of working to undermine the Palestinian Authority from the suicide bombings it perpetrated in 1996 and during the last five years of conflict, which he said had triggered the systematic destruction by Israel of the PA security and other infrastructure.
Dr Zahar accused Fatah of failing to achieve its own goals and said it and the PA were "sunk in corruption". But Mr Dahlan derided Hamas's rejection of negotiations, demanding to know how it could look after the future of Palestinians without them. "How are you going to get workers into Israel?" he asked. "Via your tunnels or the internet?"Reuse content