The worst week of internal Palestinian conflict since Hamas's takeover of the Gaza Strip last year ended with fresh escalation as the Islamic militants on Friday arrested senior political leaders of the secular Fatah party in the coastal enclave.
Amid the tit-for-tat detentions, spokesmen for the rival parties stepped up their rhetorical attacks on one another, with Hamas spokespeople making open threats to repeat their Gaza takeover in the West Bank. The acrimony is complicating recent attempts by Arab mediators to convene Hamas-Fatah talks aimed at reconciling the 13-month rift.
"It will continue to escalate. Maybe they are negotiating by arresting each other before the real talks,'' says Hissam Jaberi, a Gaza-based reporter for the Al-Ayyam newspaper. "As long as we don't have a national program accepted by all the parties, we will continue to fight.''
The roundups on Friday included prominent members of Fatah's executive committee and Fatah's regional governors who Hamas had allowed to remain in office ever since seizing power in the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
For several days, Hamas has blocked the distribution of the three leading Palestinian daily newspapers in the Gaza Strip, accusing the broadsheets of being biased toward Fatah.
Despite the escalation in Gaza on Friday, Palestinian Authority security forces released several Hamas figures from custody, complying with a directive the previous day by President Mahmoud Abbas.
The latest upsurge in fighting was triggered by a car bomb last Friday that killed five Hamas activists and a young girl. Hamas accused Fatah of planting the explosive, but Fatah leaders have denied involvement.
"They are going into houses, arresting people, and shooting people,'' said Hussein a-Sheikh, a Fatah legislative council member in an interview with Israel Radio. "This is behavior of a dark gang, not of a political party. It's trying to take over the Gaza Strip through the power of the rifle.''
On Thursday, Hamas leader Mahmoud A-Zahar vowed to replicate Hamas' Gaza Strip "revolution'' in the West Bank. Meanwhile, in a statement released the same day, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri compared the Fatah arrests of Hamas's West Bank activists to the situation in the Gaza Strip on the eve of the Islamic takeover.
"We remind them that they planted the thorns and will harvest regret,'' the Hamas statement said, according to the Palestinian news agency Ma'an.
To be sure, with the Israeli army in the West Bank, Hamas won't be able to repeat its Gaza takeover, but analysts believe that it could gain the upper hand in some West Bank population enclaves.
Just a few months ago, negotiators from Hamas and Fatah appeared to have reached a compromise in talks hosted by Yemen, but the agreement was quickly renounced by both sides.
Fatah has demanded that Hamas apologize for the use of violence and relinquish control of Palestinian Authority buildings. It also wants the Islamic militants to recognize and honor the accords it signed with Israel.
Hamas wants commitments from Fatah to get representation in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the umbrella institution of Palestinians in the occupied territories and diaspora.
After the recent Arab summit in Damascus, Mr. Abbas said he would negotiate without preconditions, and talks were supposed to have opened in Cairo. Even though the Egyptians have sent questionnaires to both sides to hammer out some common ground ahead of the talks, the current clashes have dimmed chances for dialogue for now.
Speaking to Israel Radio, Palestinian expert Reuven Paz said that recent violence demonstrates that the year-old rift between the Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is solidifying into a reality of two separate states.