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A series of attacks on Hamas officials and activists in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the past 24 hours is threatening to spoil the festive atmosphere at the Hamas-Fatah summit in Mecca, which began Wednesday with pledges by the two parties to do their utmost to reach an agreement on ending internecine fighting.
Meanwhile, sources close to Hamas told The Jerusalem Post that the movement's Syria-based leader, Khaled Mashaal, would demand during the summit that he be named deputy chairman of the PLO.
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Such a move would pave the way for Hamas to join the PLO and turn Mashaal into the second most powerful leader after Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who is also head of the PLO executive committee.
"Hamas is prepared to join the PLO on condition that Mashaal is appointed as Abbas's deputy," the sources said, noting that Hamas has long been demanding that the PLO and its institutions undergo major reforms and reconstruction.
At Wednesday's meeting, the two parties agreed to form three joint committees to discuss the status of the PLO, the proposed unity government and political issues related to the peace process.
Abdel Hakim Awad, a Fatah spokesman in the Gaza Strip, described the atmosphere in Mecca as "positive" and said the two sides were determined not to return home without an agreement. He said the summit was not limited by time and the Saudis have decided not to interfere or exert pressure on either side.
Speaking at the opening session, Abbas emphasized the significance of reaching a deal on the formation of a unity government and ending discord on the Palestinian arena. He said the discussions would focus on "reactivating" the PLO and consolidating national unity.
Mashaal said participants had no choice but to strike a deal.
"I want to assure our brothers and people that we will not leave this place without agreement," he said. "After we reach an agreement, the international community will be obliged to respect it and lift the sanctions imposed on our people."
Mashaal added that an agreement was needed to "face the challenges facing the Palestinians, first and foremost ridding the Palestinians of the occupation, restoring our rights and guaranteeing the right of return for the refugees to their homes."
PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas expressed hope that the summit would lead to the opening of a new page in relations between Hamas and Fatah.
But as the talks in Mecca were under way, tensions on the ground continued to mount between the two parties.
Hamas accused Fatah gunmen of trying to assassinate PA Minister for Refugee Affairs Atef Udwan near Gaza City.
No one was hurt when the minister's convoy came under fire outside the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, Hamas said.
Udwan's office said in a statement that the assassination attempt was aimed at foiling the Mecca summit.
"This is an attempt to drag Hamas into another round of violence and bloodshed," the statement charged. "We call on the Palestinian security forces to arrest the murderous culprits."
In Ramallah, Fatah gunmen stormed the offices of the Hamas-run Ministry of Health and kidnapped Dr. Bilal Aboushi, director-general of hospitals in the West Bank. The gunmen also went on a rampage inside the office of Dr. Hussam Khraim, the deputy minister for administrative and financial affairs.
Late Tuesday night, two senior members of Hamas's armed wing were gunned down in Gaza City. The two, Muhammad Abu Karsh and Muhammad Abu Namus, were involved in the recent fighting between Fatah and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoun accused supporters of Fatah operative Muhammad Dahlan of being behind the killings. He said the two were stopped by Dahlan's men as they drove near his home and were "executed" after being identified as Hamas activists.
"Hamas will not remain idle in the face of the crimes perpetrated by these murderers," he said.
Fatah gunmen in Gaza City also raided the home of Wasim Saksak, a top aide to Haniyeh, and kidnapped his brother, Muhammad, who works for one of the PA security forces. The Hamas-led government strongly condemned the incident, saying it was yet another attempt to thwart the Mecca talks.