The leaderships of the two rival Palestinian factions are due to meet in Mecca today for Saudi-brokered talks which could be the last chance to prevent a bloody and open-ended escalation of their internal conflict.
With one militant leader predicting that failure of the talks will be " considered a decision to go to civil war", the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Damascus-based head of Hamas's political bureau, Khaled Mashaal, will lead delegations in an effort to agree a coalition "government of national unity".
Kadoura Fares, a politician close to the jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, who has been urging an agreement with Hamas, said: "Both Fatah and Hamas know that not having an agreement in this round of talks means catastrophe."
Earlier Mr Fares, who was involved last week in talks with Mr Mashaal, sounded an optimistic note about the talks, suggesting that agreement had been reached in principle on the allocation of ministries under a new cross-party government headed by Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister.
According to one plan canvassed for the new government, the former finance minister Salam Fayad would be reinstalled in his old job and Ziad Abu Amr, a secular politician who fought last January's election on a Hamas ticket, would become Foreign Minister.
But a key question remains whether ideological differences between the two groups on a two-state solution let alone on the international and Israeli demands for Hamas to recognise Israel, renounce violence and commit to previous agreements can be bridged sufficiently to allow a dea.
Raji Sourani, director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, which has documented deaths from an internal conflict that has peaked with the deaths of 29 Palestinians over the past four days, said: "I cannot even think about the talks failing. If they do it's going to be bleak, black and bloody. "
More shops opened yesterday in Gaza City as the latest ceasefire appeared to be mainly holding pending the outcome of the talks. Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the talks, deliberately being held in a guest palace overlooking the Kaaba, the shrine towards which Muslims pray, was different from previous attempts to form a coalition, because of the planned presence of all senior members of the two factions and the Saudis' determination to have a "successful meeting".
He was also careful to draw a distinction between the positions of Hamas as a movement against recognition of Israel and renunciation of "resistance " along with the refusal to commit to agreements such as Oslo and the road map, on the one hand, and any formula that might be agreed by a unity government in which Hamas would not necessarily form a majority on the other.
Some analysts also suggested that even some die-hard Fatah opponents of Hamas now regarded prevention of a Palestinian civil war as more important than a literal acceptance by the Islamic faction of all three Israeli and international conditions which would be guaranteed to lift the economic boycott.Reuse content