Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, promised yesterday to start paying salaries to government employees in the aftermath of angry demonstrations by security officers over the non-payment of their wages.
Mr Haniyeh told worshippers at a Gaza mosque that the payments would start today or tomorrow of wages to those earning £175 a month, and those earning higher salaries would receive downpayments of £175. The PA's 165,000 employees are in their third month without a salary.
His pledge came amid growing unrest among the Fatah-dominated security services against the Hamas government, which on Thursday saw members firing automatic weapons and smashing windows at the parliament building in Gaza.
Khader Afana, a Fatah member of the preventative security force, was killed by unknown gunmen in Gaza City. No one admitted responsibility for the shooting.
Pledging that local banks would start paying some of the salaries, Mr Haniyeh said that the PA would not collapse under the weight of the international and Israeli boycott of the authority. "We have collected lots of money but the Americans are putting pressure on the banks and on other countries in order to prevent it from coming in," he said.
Mr Haniyeh's promise was made two days before the expiry of the 10-day deadline set by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in his warning to Hamas that they should accept the principle of a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel or he would put the issue to a referendum.
As sources close to Mr Abbas reported a hardening of his determination to hold a referendum, Fatah's central committee, at a meeting in Tunisia attended by Mr Abbas, ratified a motion calling for the referendum whether or not it receives the consent of other Palestinian factions.
In Beijing on Thursday, Mahmoud al-Zahar, the Hamas leader and PA Foreign Minister, repeated his opposition to the referendum, again calling it a waste of money. Pointing out that Hamas had won an election in January, he declared: "We are not in need of a referendum." But Mr Abbas said he did not need the backing of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council for the referendum, adding: "I do not need the parliament's ratification. 160,000 Palestinians are not eating and drinking because of the position of the current government."
One official said that the "national dialogue" between Hamas and Fatah on the proposal - embodied in a joint document by a group of senior Fatah and Hamas prisoners - might extend beyond the weekend. But he added that Hamas had not been officially attending talks in Ramallah over the last few days, on the ground that they wanted them moved to Gaza, and that "the feeling" was that the referendum would go ahead whether Hamas agreed to the proposal or not.
Meanwhile, Haaretz newspaper quoted a PA security officer for Gaza border crossings, Salim Abu Safiya, as saying that Mr Abbas was soon to assume direct responsibility for the crossings, replacing the government officials who run the checkpoints with his own presidential guards. Forces loyal to Mr Abbas have already assumed control of the main Rafah crossing into Egypt in an operation aided and supported by the United States.
Officials in the presidency office earlier this month broadly confirmed reports that Mr Abbas was still pressing a long-standing proposal for the presidential security force to be increased - to an eventual target of around 10,000 men.
Israel caused Mr Abbas and Fatah leaders some embarrassment a week ago by announcing that they had allowed weapons into Gaza from an unspecified third country for equipping Mr Abbas's personal protection force because of perceived threats against his life. A request transmitted by the US for weapons to be allowed in for PA security forces last year was rejected by Israel.
The Israeli Defence Minister, Amir Peretz, yesterday ordered a joint inquiry with Egypt after two uniformed and armed men were shot dead after an attacking an Israeli army unit on the border between the two countries.
Egyptian police on Friday said the two armed men who were killed were security personnel. A third armed man, also said by Egyptian police to be a security officer, fled back across the border. Essam el-Sheik, the head of Egyptian police in the border area, said the reason for their infiltration into Israel was not immediately clear.
Fatah and Hamas: the key differences
* TWO-STATE SOLUTION
Mahmoud Abbas is planning to hold a referendum on the principle of a two-state solution to overcome opposition from Hamas to recognising the state of Israel. A referendum would vote on a document favouring two states on pre-occupation 1967 borders drawn up by Hamas and Fatah prisoners.
Both sides are struggling for control over the security services delivering law and order to Palestinians. Hamas has formed a 3,000-strong paramilitary force to "support" existing police despite this being vetoed by President Abbas, angering members of the Fatah-dominated security forces. Meanwhile President Abbas is seeking to build up presidential forces.
Some Fatah elements are protesting at the PA's inability to pay salaries because of the Israeli-led boycott on Hamas unless it meets demands for recognising Israel, renouncing violence and holding to previous agreements with Israel. Hamas says most Palestinians blame not the Government, but the international community.