A renewed dispute between Fatah and Hamas threatens to derail a major convention of some 2,000 Fatah members, from both the territories and the Diaspora, that is due to be held in Bethlehem next Tuesday: Hamas says that unless those of its members being held in Palestinian Authority prisons in the West Bank are released, it it will not enable around 400 Fatah delegates from the Gaza Strip to attend the convention.

Fatah leaders have threatened Hamas with harsh retaliation, up to and including launching an all-out war against Hamas and its institutions in the West Bank. This would mean rounding up Hamas operatives, which could spark violent confrontations.

Several Fatah leaders, including Jibril Rajoub and Nasser al-Kidwa, have proposed postponing the convention - which will elect a new central committee for Fatah - until a reconciliation is achieved with Hamas that would enable the delegates to leave Gaza. Giving up on the Gaza delegates, they said, would be the ultimate recognition of the split between Gaza and the West Bank.

Al-Kidwa is both Yasser Arafat's nephew and a leading candidate for the new central committee.

But sources close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas said that putting off the convention would be tantamount to surrendering to Hamas, which wants to prevent it.

"Fatah will not be the same organization after the convention," said Mohammed Dahlan, formerly the organization's senior official in Gaza, last week.

Fatah's sixth convention - its first in 20 years - is slated to elect both the central committee, whose 21 members serve as a kind of politbureau, and a new Revolutionary Council, a 120-strong decision-making body.

The older generation that has hitherto dominated Fatah's leadership is widely seen as corrupt, and most of its members live in exile. The convention is expected to replace them with the next generation - the men who led the first intifada and, to some extent, the second one.

These include Dahlan, Rajoub, Hussein Al-Sheikh, Marwan Barghouti and others.

In addition to the changing of the guard, which is expected to strengthen Fatah in the territories, the organization must also decide on a strategy for its fight against Israel.

Despite its war with Hamas, the delegates are expected to reassert that armed struggle is a legitimate form of action against the Israeli occupation. The convention is expected to largely readopt Arafat's "olive branch and rifle" approach, which is similar to Hamas' current modus operandi.

This strategy is not surprising in view of Fatah's competition with Hamas for the heart of the Palestinian public. But public support for armed struggle will bolster the Israeli right's claim that there is no difference between Fatah and Hamas.

Egypt said earlier this week that Hamas' move to ban Fatah members in Gaza from traveling to the party's convention in the West Bank was "unacceptable."