Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia met in Gaza City yesterday with leaders of the main Pales-tinian armed factions and security officials in a bid to prevent any outbreak of violence if Palestinian President Yasser Arafat dies.
The meeting brought together Qureia, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fatah, as well as Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath and parliamentary speaker Rawhi Fattuh.
While Arafat fights for his life at a French military hospital, officials from his Palestinian Authority and rival factions have appealed for unity and calm.
Under the Palestinian Basic Law, Fattuh would replace Arafat for 60 days should the Palestinian Authority president die or become incapacitated, at which time elections would have to be held.
"This joint meeting is very important. It is a very sensitive time ... We will ask the leaders of the security services to do everything to protect the Palestinian people and the Palestinian areas," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
Khalid el-Batsh, a leader of Islamic Jihad, also called on Qureia and the security services to "protect security and put an end to all differences."
"We will ask Qureia and brother Abu Mazen [Mahmud Abbas] to face this crisis by ensuring that the Palestinian leadership is united," he said.
On Friday, representatives of the armed factions agreed on the need to prevent political rivalries giving way to violence.
Fears of unrest in Gaza are particularly acute as clashes between armed factions and the security forces have broken out on a number of occasions in recent months.
"All parties are determined to live in peace during the period following president Arafat's expected death," a Palestinian security official said, noting the "high degree of cooperation" between security services and the factions.
In Lebanon, Shiite militant group Hezbollah called on Palestinians to unite ahead of Arafat's looming death, saying Israel is counting on discord in their ranks.
"Palestinians in general and Palestinian groups in particular are called upon to unite and cooperate with each other to get through this tough and crucial period," Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was quoted as saying by the local press.
While there has been no official word, Qureia's talks in Gaza are likely to touch on the issue of where Arafat should be buried.
In the morning, Qureia met US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Elizabeth Dibble in the West Bank city of Ramallah, officials said, giving no further details.
The ailing leader is understood to want to be buried in Jerusa-lem's al-Aqsa mosque compound, but Israel is staunchly opposed to his burial in the holy city and is also reluctant to authorize a funeral in the West Bank.
"Jerusalem is the city where Jewish kings are buried and not Arab terrorists," Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid said.
In Paris, top Arafat aide Nabil Abu Rudeina said Arafat remained in critical condition but that he was not beyond recovery.
Aides said Arafat was not brain dead and not on life support, refuting reports earlier this week.
The Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot reported yesterday that Arafat opened his eyes and communicated with doctors during the night.