Senior Fatah officials in the Gaza Strip have asked Israel to allow them to receive large shipments of arms and ammunition from Arab countries, including Egypt. The group says it needs the weapons to counter attacks by Hamas, which has an overwhelming advantage in the Gaza Strip.

Israel has not officially responded to the request, which includes dozens of armored cars, hundreds of armor-piercing RPG rockets, thousands of hand grenades and millions of rounds of ammunition for small caliber weapons.

In addition, Fatah is organizing yet another paramilitary force in the Gaza Strip, sources say.

In their talks with Israeli security officials, senior Fatah officials said the armored cars are necessary to protect them and their personnel, and to disperse hostile Hamas demonstrations.

The vehicles in question are currently in Egypt.

Last year, Israel allowed Fatah to bring weapons into Gaza on a number of occasions. Those shipments, which included 2,500 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition, came from Jordan and Egypt, and were transferred to the Gaza Strip in coordination with Israel.

Some of the recent requests were made during direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian security officials. Others were made through the American security coordinator in the area, General Keith Dayton.

Under certain circumstances, Israel may allow the transfer of armored vehicles, since they are not considered a threat to its security. In the past, during the Oslo Accords, Israel allowed then-Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat to receive a number of outdated armored vehicles.

When the second intifada began, the armored vehicles were destroyed in air strikes.

On the other hand, Israel is unlikely to allow rockets to enter Gaza, since they may fall into the hands of Hamas and be used against Israeli forces.

PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying during a closed meeting yesterday that he is "very frustrated by the fact that Israel is not permitting the transfer of arms and ammunition for his men. The legal organs of the Palestinian Authority have become weaker than the militias due to the lack of equipment."

Israeli intelligence officials are not unanimous in their assessments of Fatah's and Hamas' strength in Gaza. Most Shin Bet experts and officers in charge of activity in the territories believe that Fatah is on the verge of collapse in the strip - and that a future confrontation with Hamas may bring about its final defeat. They argue that there is no point in supporting Fatah, because all the equipment the movement receives will eventually fall into Hamas' hands.

On the other hand, Military Intelligence and other intelligence experts believe that Fatah is not close to surrendering, and that reinforcing the group with equipment from abroad should be considered seriously.

Some Fatah officials in the Gaza Strip cite the latest round of fighting with Hamas as proof that the organization is much stronger than was originally thought.

General Dayton supports this position, and has even made statements to this effect during U.S. congressional hearings.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah's leading figure in the Gaza Strip, is organizing another paramilitary unit.

Several months ago, Dahlan established another force, the Presidential Guard, which comprises several thousand fighters trained with American assistance in Arab countries. The latest group, Fatah's Executive Force, is supposed to counter its synonymous rival in Hamas. It currently includes about 1,000 fighters.