Hamas yesterday rejected Fatah's demand that Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad continue in his post under the planned Fatah-Hamas unity government. This is the first open dispute to erupt between the two rival parties since they signed a reconciliation pact in April.

On Saturday night, Fatah's central committee decided to make Fayyad its candidate for prime minister even though he is not a Fatah member. PA President and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas had pushed for Fayyad's candidacy, in part because Fayyad's continuation in office would likely help the unity government obtain international aid and recognition. But Hamas officials vetoed the idea.

"We won't agree to give Fayyad permission to head the government," said senior Hamas official Salah Bardawil, because "he mired the West Bank in debt and his name is linked to four years of siege on Gaza, as well as arrests and torture of Hamas activists in the West Bank."

Sami Abu Zuhari, Hamas' spokesman in Gaza, said the movement had opposed Fayyad's candidacy in the past as well and stressed that the new premier must be approved by both Fatah and Hamas.

Senior Hamas and Fatah leaders are due to meet on Thursday to discuss various issues, including this one, and it is possible that Hamas may change its mind after the meeting.

Palestinian commentators suggested that Hamas didn't really view Fayyad's ouster as a make-or-break issue, but was simply presenting a tough opening position in negotiations over who would fill which portfolio in the unity government. Hamas is particularly interested in getting its people into social-welfare ministries like education, health and welfare, and may ultimately agree to Fayyad as prime minister in exchange for these portfolios.

Nevertheless, there is a strong faction within Hamas, and especially among its political leadership in the Gaza Strip, that insists that the next prime minister be a Gaza resident - which would rule out Fayyad.

Moreover, it remains unclear whether Fayyad would even take the job because he has previously told close associates that he would do so only if he were given real authority in Gaza as well as the West Bank. Since Hamas is completely unwilling to dismantle its military forces in Gaza, it is hard to see how Fayyad could in fact exercise such authority.

Also on Saturday, Fatah's central committee decided to oust Mohammed Dahlan from the panel's ranks, following an open letter by Dahlan assailing Abbas and other senior Fatah officials for what he termed their persecution of him in the media. Fatah's Revolutionary Council must still approve this decision, but is expected to do so.

Inter alia, Dahlan accused Abbas of trying to oust him from Fatah at any cost in order to use him as a scapegoat for all the mistakes Fatah has made in the past. In particular, he lambasted Abbas' request that the central committee investigate him for alleged arms smuggling to Muammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya.