GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Their fingers on the triggers of their assault rifles, their eyes alert for danger, Ashraf Hamed and Abu Bara stood shoulder to shoulder yesterday at a Gaza City intersection, vowing to serve and protect fellow Palestinians.
But first they might need to protect themselves from each other.
Hamed, 18, a fresh-faced Palestinian Authority security officer, is one of thousands of gunmen loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party. Bara, 23, a bearded member of a new, 3,000-strong Hamas security force, answers only to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
Together, they represent two sides of a bitter and intensifying rivalry between the newly elected Hamas leadership and Fatah, the party once led by Yasser Arafat - a rivalry that has led to fierce gunbattles, bombings and kidnappings, and raised fears of civil war.
The latest escalation occurred yesterday, when a Fatah security chief was killed here by a car bomb. The victim, Habil Hodhod, head of the elite Preventure Security Service in central Gaza, had been leading the confrontations with Hamas.
Later in the day, masked gunmen seized three Hamas militants outside a mosque and shot them. One later died, wire services reported. Adding to the confusion, about 1,000 gunmen wearing Fatah T-shirts marched through Gaza City's downtown swearing their loyalty to Hamas.
In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot and killed four Palestinians in Ramallah's central square, wounded more than 30 and detained a person described as a prominent member of the militant group Islamic Jihad.
In an effort to cool tempers, Abbas will conduct meetings today and tomorrow to search for solutions to the security problems and the international isolation of Hamas that has left the Palestinian government bankrupt and near collapse.
"The situation is unpredictable," said Eyad Saraj, a human rights activist who directs the Gaza Community Mental Health Program and will participate in today's talks. "You have two major armies confronting one another. In addition, you have militias with arms. If the situation continues to deteriorate, you will have a situation like Somalia."
Leaders of Hamas and Fatah have said that they have no intention of pushing their people into a civil war. But many Palestinians are pessimistic about the outcome of the talks.
"If I'm allowed to ask a question," said Saraj, "I will ask, 'Is there anything at all that they can agree on? Anything?'"
The internal Palestinian dispute has its roots in the parliamentary elections in January, when Hamas, an Islamic group that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization, won a sweeping, unexpected victory, unseating Fatah.
Using the powers of the Palestinian presidency once wielded by Arafat, Abbas reacted to Fatah's defeat by asserting control of all Palestinian security branches, to keep them out of the hands of Hamas.
Seeking to regain respect and control, Hamas ordered its forces into the streets of Gaza last week, touching off a string of gunbattles, including one on Monday in which a Jordanian diplomat was killed.
Abbas has demanded that Hamas disband its forces and remove them from the streets. Hamas has refused.
For both organizations there is much at stake. Hamas, unable to pay the salaries of the Palestinian Authority's 150,000 workers for the past two months, and fearing a collapse of its government, is trying to reassert its authority. Fatah, badly divided after its election defeat, is scrambling to reorganize and fears that Hamas intends to destroy it, to remove the only political obstacle to achieving full control of the Gaza Strip.
"If they break Fatah's legs, Hamas will rule the Palestinians and establish an Islamic state," says Alaa Yaghi, a Fatah member of the Palestinian parliament.
In an interview at his office yesterday, Yaghi said Fatah is training and equipping several thousand members of its militias in preparation for war.
"If Hamas wants to shoot us, we have to have people ready to shoot them," he said.
Haniyeh, a member of Hamas, said yesterday that he was making progress toward an agreement to incorporate Hamas forces with the Palestinian Authority police forces.
But Yaghi said Fatah would never allow the merger and that Hamas must pull its forces from the streets.
"They are illegal," Yaghi said. "Most of them are criminals. They are not there imposing security, but to kill people. I don't feel secure if I see them. I'm afraid."
But that was not the feeling among many Palestinians, who expressed appreciation yesterday for the added forces in their streets.
"We feel more secure than before," said Ismail Kassem, 30, a real estate agent in downtown Gaza City.
Omar Jerjawi, 20, owner of a flower shop, dismissed fears that the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah would descend into civil war.
"Everything is difficult at the beginning," he said. "I'm not afraid. We are bigger than this."
At the corner of Wihda and Al Jalaa streets, all was quiet between Hamed and Bara. The security men talked about the different paths that had led them to where they stood. Hamed, the Fatah security officer, received training through the Palestinian Authority. Bara fought Israeli soldiers during the Palestinian uprising.
Hamed said he might have need of Bara's assistance. Bara smiled and said he was ready at any time.
"We are the sons of the mosque," he said. "We are the best to deal with the public."
For now, they couldn't imagine fighting each another.
"We are one people," Bara insisted, looking out across the traffic.
"Yes," said Hamed, "there is no difference."