(photo credit: AP [file])
Tensions have been mounting within both Hamas and Fatah ahead of the US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that a sharp dispute had erupted between former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei, head of the Palestinian team negotiating with Israel, and another member of the team, Yasser Abed Rabbo.
The officials said the dispute began after Qurei learned that Abed Rabbo was conducting secret talks with Israelis about a joint document to be presented at the Annapolis conference.
Abed Rabbo and former justice minister Yossi Beilin were behind the Geneva Initiative, a private effort that presented a detailed proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Qurei was enraged by reports in the Israeli media that Abed Rabbo and Beilin have been trying to impose the Geneva Initiative on the agenda of the Annapolis conference.
Qurei's office issued a statement Wednesday denying the reports and emphasizing that no "back-channel" talks were being conducted with Israel.
The statement stressed that the Palestinian negotiating team headed by Qurei was the only party authorized to negotiate with Israel ahead of the conference.
According to one official, Qurei has also been trying to distance Abed Rabbo from the talks with Israel. He said Qurei had refused to take Abed Rabbo with him to meetings with Israelis in the past few weeks.
The dispute between Qurei and Abed Rabbo does not bode well for the PA's ability to reach any agreement with Israel at Annapolis. The squabbling among Abbas's top officials has divided the Palestinian negotiating team into two camps: Qurei is supported by top negotiator Saeb Erekat and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, while Abed Rabbo is backed by PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and another member of the team, Sa'di al-Krunz.
Hamas is also facing a serious internal crisis.
Sources close to the Islamist movement in the Gaza Strip said tensions between Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar reached a boiling point over the past few days, prompting the Hamas government ruling the Strip to place Zahar under house arrest.
According to the sources, the dispute erupted after Haniyeh demanded that Zahar refrain from making fiery statements that did not represent the official policy of the Hamas government.
Zahar is reported to have shouted at Haniyeh: "Who do you think you are? You were only a bodyguard and servant for [slain Hamas leader] Ahmed Yassin. Your job was to open the door of his car for him."
At one point, the bodyguards of the two men had to intervene to prevent Zahar from physically attacking Haniyeh, the sources added.
Zahar, who has been strongly opposed to any form of dialogue with Abbas and his Fatah faction, also criticized Haniyeh for permitting four Hamas representatives in the West Bank to meet with Abbas last weekend. The sources added that Zahar also criticized Syrian-based Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal, saying the latter was working as a private tutor in Kuwait when he [Zahar] was among the 400 Hamas leaders temporarily deported to Lebanon by Israel in 1992-1993.