Egyptian diplomats and security officials who are based in the Gaza Strip spent more than six hours on Wednesday night trying to persuade Hamas and Fatah leaders to work toward preventing an all-out confrontation between the two parties. The leaders of the two parties were summoned to an urgent meeting at the home of a top Egyptian diplomat in Gaza City, where they were told that Cairo was "extremely worried" that the Palestinian territories were rapidly plunging into civil war. The meeting was held shortly after the Hamas cabinet deployed hundreds of militiamen belonging to a new security force in various parts of the Gaza Strip. The new force, called the Support Unit, consists largely of members of Hamas's armed wing, Izzaddin al-Kassam, and the Popular Resistance Committees, an alliance of various armed groups, including dissident Palestinian Authority security officers. The deployment of the new force is regarded by Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party as a declaration of war on them. Abbas, who last month tried to prevent the establishment of Hamas's 3,000-strong force through a "presidential decree" on the grounds that it was illegal, is said to be outraged by the decision to send the new security officers to the streets. His aides in Ramallah said he saw Hamas's move as a personal challenge and a test to his leadership. Until this week, the general assessment in Abbas's inner circle was that the Hamas government would collapse sometime in July because of the financial crisis. As he has previously done in such cases, Abbas sought the help of the Egyptians in easing tensions with Hamas. The Egyptians, who maintain a large diplomatic and security presence in the Gaza Strip, are perhaps the only Arab party that has some kind of influence on Hamas. The Egyptians have a great interest in preventing civil war in the Gaza Strip because of the possibility of the violence spilling over into their territory. The Egyptians already have enough problems with al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations that have been operating in Sinai for some time now. An Egyptian diplomat told The Jerusalem Post this week that his government was increasingly worried about the growing tensions between Hamas and Fatah. "This is a situation where neither party would win," he said. "Civil war means total destruction. It will be the Palestinians' new nakba [catastrophe]." According to the diplomat, the severe financial crisis has thus far failed to weaken Hamas. "On the contrary," he noted. "The international sanctions have only boosted Hamas's popularity. The Palestinians are rallying behind their democratically elected government when they see that the US and Israel are trying to bring it down." Yet, as far as many Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are concerned, the civil war between Hamas and Fatah has been raging for some time. Hardly a day passes without an armed clash between the two sides in different places. But what is perhaps most worrying for the PA and Fatah is the sharp rise in the number of attacks on top security officers who are affiliated with Abbas. In the past three weeks, the homes and cars of several officers from the Preventative Security Service (PSS) - formerly headed by Muhammed Dahlan and which was responsible for previous crackdowns on Hamas members - were attacked by Hamas gunmen, mostly in the northern Gaza Strip. IN THE eyes of Hamas, the PSS - which is today headed by General Rashid Abu Shabak - is a Fatah militia that has long been on the payroll of the US and Israel. Hamas-affiliated Web sites are laden with calls to target the force and kill its chiefs. Leaflets distributed in the Gaza Strip by Hamas and other radical groups have repeatedly threatened to "execute" Dahlan and other Fatah leaders for conspiring with the US and Israel to bring down the Hamas government. Hamas's new militia, which began operating in parts of the Gaza Strip this week, is supposed to serve as a counter-force for the PSS. Hamas's Interior Minister, Said Siam, who is formally in charge of the PA security forces, has been complaining ever since he entered office that the PSS and the rest of the security forces are refusing to take orders from him. "Abu Mazen [Abbas] is not allowing us to control the security forces," Siam told the Egyptian diplomats recently. "We want to enforce law and order, but Abu Mazen does not want his security forces to carry out the job." The establishment of the new security force is seen by some Palestinians as yet another sign that today there are two authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - one headed by Hamas and the other by Abu Mazen and some of his Fatah loyalists. In response to the deployment of the Hamas force, a furious Abbas ordered what's left of his security forces to take to the streets and prevent the new force from operating. But Abbas, like most Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, is fully aware that it's too late to thwart the Hamas move, and that the countdown to a major confrontation has already begun. As one Abbas aide put it this week, "We are only a step away from civil war."