Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) made a rare visit to the Gaza Strip on Saturday for talks with rival Palestinian groups aimed at preserving calm in the face of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's (search) dire condition.
While Islamic militants have made public show of unity, Hamas (search), the largest opposition group, said in a potential challenge to Qureia that the militant group is looking for a formal role in Palestinian decision making.
"This time is very sensitive. It's a historic time. There is no space for any unilateral decisions," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said. "Everyone now is calling to form a united Palestinian leadership. This is a demand of our people."
Qureia arrived in Gaza under heavy guard and accompanied by Parliament Speaker Rauhi Fattouh, who would step in as a caretaker president of the Palestinian Authority if Arafat dies.
Eight vehicles full of security forces joined his motorcade, roads were closed, and dozens of Palestinian police guarded the area. In his year as prime minister, Qureia has traveled to the volatile Gaza Strip only two or three times.
The situation is particularly delicate in Gaza, where rival groups of gunmen and security officials have fought each other in the streets, jockeying for power ahead of Israel's planned withdrawal from the coastal strip in 2005.
Qureia met for four hours with representatives of the 13 major Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as security chiefs, lawmakers and officials of Arafat's Fatah faction. Such a broad gathering is extremely rare.
After the meeting, Qureia said the security commanders had committed to a "joint security plan ... to ensure security and order."
He said the Islamic groups "reiterated the importance" of working together with the Palestinian government "to reach a national program and a national plan and to achieve a political partnership."
Qureia told reporters he was encouraged by the meeting and vowed to continue the dialogue. The meeting focused on political issues, the shaky security situation in the Palestinian territories and finding a way to share decisionmaking.
The parties will meet again to discuss possibilities of a cease-fire "restoring law and order and security control," Qureia said before returning to the West Bank. A second meeting of security chiefs was canceled.
The rival groups also met in Gaza on Friday in a show of unity, but little of substance was resolved.
Further complicating Qureia's efforts, Hamas' Abu Zuhri also ruled out a cease-fire with Israel. "The resistance continues and will stop only if the occupation ends," he said.
During his tenure, Qureia has tried to persuade the militants to commit to a cease-fire in hopes of restarting peace talks with Israel.
It was unclear whether Abu Zuhri's comments signaled the beginning of a power struggle that is widely expected in the post-Arafat era. Other groups participating in Saturday's talks, including Fatah, made similar calls for unity.
After the meeting, Abu Zuhri said Hamas is not seeking to replace the Palestinian Authority or Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.
Instead, he called for a unity leadership to serve in an advisory role during a "transitional period until we have an election in which our people will be able to choose their representatives."
Arafat was transferred to the French hospital from his West Bank headquarters last week. The 75-year-old, now in a coma, was clinging to life Saturday.
Doctors said late Friday there had been no change — for better or worse — in his health. They have yet to offer any official public diagnosis.
Arafat refused to appoint a successor and none of his possible replacements appear to have the popularity or power base to unify competing — and sometimes warring — Palestinian factions.
It seems increasingly likely that, at least transitionally, the Palestinians will be led by a collective, headed by Qureia and former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat's deputy in the PLO.
As prime minister, Qureia would deal with the daily affairs of governing, while Abbas would handle diplomacy, Palestinian officials said.
Under Palestinian law, Fattouh would take Arafat's place as Palestinian Authority president for 60 days, until new elections are held.
Palestinian officials have expressed concern that Fattouh, who was named speaker only last year, may not be up to the job, even briefly.