Hamas denounced the governments of US and Israel for "interference" and "collective punishment" after it was reported that they were discussing ways of using a halt to funding to oust it from power later this year.
Both countries denied they had a deliberate plan to force elections in the hope of an early end to Hamas's majority in the newly elected Palestinian Legislative Council, which meets for the first time on Saturday.
But Israel, in particular, did nothing to dispel the idea that it was in favour of cutting off funding from a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority unless the faction agreed to recognise Israel, renounce violence and abide by previous agreements between Israel and the authority.
The New York Times quoted unnamed "officials and diplomats" yesterday as saying the intention was to starve the PA of money and international contacts to the extent that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, would be forced to call new elections which would return Fatah to power. The paper said the strategy was to force Hamas to choose between altering its long-held stances or face international isolation and collapse. Commenting on the report, Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas spokesman and newly elected legislator, said: "This is... a rejection of the democratic process, which the Americans are calling for day and night. It's an interference and a collective punishment of our people because they practised the democratic process in a transparent and honest way. We need a firm Islamic and Arabic position to confront this challenge."
The meeting of the international "Quartet", made up of the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, on 30 January, warned that "future assistance to any new [Palestinian government] would be reviewed" in the light of that government's willingness to meet the three conditions. But asked about the reported plan to force elections, the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "There is no plan, there is no plot."
Mark Regev, the spokes-man for Israel's foreign ministry, denied there was a plan to oust Hamas in fresh elections, but said that Israel and the international community had already made it clear that there would be " serious implications" for Hamas if it did not reverse its stances on recognition, violence and previous agreements. Saying he did "not expect " Israel to continue remitting the $50m (£29m) a month in duties it collects for the Palestinians, he added: "The game plan isn't to secure regime change. It is to make sure that the incoming Palestinian leadership makes the right decisions and gets on board with international norms if at all possible."
The fresh diplomatic turbulence comes after Hamas sharply criticised Fatah legislators for using a last meeting of the outgoing legislative council on Monday to give Mr Abbas the right to appoint judges to a constitutional court which could rule against new legislation.
Even assuming the second election strategy is being discussed, Western diplomats pointed to several possible flaws. The first was whether Mahmoud Abbas would be prepared to call new elections in such circumstances. The Palestinian basic law appears to be silent on whether he has the legal power to do so.
The second doubt was whether the Palestinians would necessarily repent of their choice of Hamas in a second round of elections. In one sense Hamas's victory was notably less spectacular than its decisive 74 seats out of 132 suggests. If independent candidates who had been linked to the deeply split Fatah had been forbidden from standing in district elections Fatah might even have won, according to the pollster Khalil Shikaki.
On the other hand a European diplomat here said yesterday that it would be rash to assume that the Palestinian electorate would vote Fatah "simply because the world was telling them to." A Palestinian source opposed to Hamas pointed out that the faction's victory came despite a clear threat by the EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana before the election that Europe as well as the US would not fund a Hamas cabinet.
The third imponderable was the possible threat of renewed violence by Hamas if it was ousted in elections called because of a deliberate attempt to starve the authority of funding.
The Israeli Defence Minister, Shaul Mofaz, in Cairo for talks with the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, reported Mr Mubarak as saying he believed that after assuming power, "Hamas will change its ways ... and adopt the Israeli conditions".
* The oldest son of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was sentenced to nine months in prison yesterday for illegal fundraising during his father's 1999 primary campaign, but will be permitted to remain free until August because of the incapacitated leader's medical condition.