Hamas has threatened to resort to violence if Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, calls early elections after the breakdown of negotiations for a national unity government between the Islamist party, which won a surprise parliamentary majority last January, and his more pragmatic Fatah.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Prime Minister, said during a visit to Iran: "Holding early elections is the start of the creation of disorder in Palestine. They do not want the formation of a national-unity government. They want to expel Hamas from the government. They want the authority and government to be entirely in the hands of non-Hamas people."
Mr Abbas lost patience after Hamas refused to accept international conditions for ending an economic boycott that has brought the Palestinians close to starvation: recognising Israel, renouncing violence and honouring past agreements.
With Tony Blair due here later this week in an attempt to revive peace negotiations as part of an Anglo-American exit strategy from Iraq, Mr Abbas had hoped for a government of technocrats that would make the most of a growing Western eagerness to break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock.
But Mr Haniyeh insisted: "We will never recognise the Zionist government. We will continue the jihad until Jerusalem is liberated."
The Hamas leader added after meeting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline Iranian President: "We support the Palestinian people's right to resistance and its right to cancel the cruel agreements that we signed in the past with the occupation regime."
If Mr Abbas does call early elections, he will face two problems. He will have to restore order, especially in the anarchic Gaza Strip, to enable campaigning and a fair vote. The signs are not encouraging. Fatah and Hamas gunmen exchanged fire on Saturday when dozens of policemen rioted against the non-payment of their wages.
He would also have to heal internal Fatah divisions to give his party any chance of victory. The worst result for him would be a second Hamas triumph. In last January's elections, Fatah lost at least 16 seats in constituencies where its factions fought each other as hard as they fought Hamas.Reuse content