Rival Palestinian factions agreed Wednesday to postpone the handover of control over Gaza from Hamas to Fatah, less than 48 hours before a deadline as part of an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal.
The announcement came at the last minute as the landmark Palestinian unity deal faltered dangerously, with Fatah and Hamas accusing each other of not respecting the accord.
"Hamas and Fatah are asking Egypt to postpone the transfer of the government roles from December 1 to December 10 in order to finalise arrangements to ensure the completion of national reconciliation steps," said a statement from Hamas, the Islamist rulers of the Gaza Strip.
Fayez Abu Eita, a spokesman for Fatah in Gaza, said the same in remarks after the factions met in Gaza City, noting it was in the interest of "achieving the goals of our people, achieving reconciliation and ending the division".
In previous days the two sides had traded accusations of failing to respect the October 12 agreement which was supposed to see Hamas hand over all governing duties in the enclave to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority by December 1.
Sharp disagreements remained between Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas's Fatah, based in the occupied West Bank, and Hamas, particularly over the fate of public employees in Gaza and security control of the enclave.
Earlier on Wednesday, Fatah's top negotiator, Azzam al-Ahmad, told AFP that Hamas was "not committed to the agreement it signed in Cairo."
"Until this moment, the problems and obstacles from Hamas are still there and are increasing."
In response, senior Hamas official Bassem Naim accused Fatah of "manoeuvres" to avoid going through with the deal.
Multiple previous reconciliation attempts have failed since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007.
Also Wednesday, in another sign of tension ahead of the deadline, PA employees were prevented by union delegates close to Hamas from returning to work at a number of ministries in the Gaza Strip.
Fatah and Hamas traded accusations over the incident.
As tensions built, Abbas ordered an immediate stop to public statements on reconciliation "for the sake of the Palestinian national interest and our relationship with our Egyptian brothers", official news agency WAFA said.
- 'Very important agreement' -
The Cairo deal signed last month is aimed at ending the decade-long feud between Fatah and Hamas.
Hamas has controlled the Gaza Strip since seizing it in 2007 in a near civil war with Fatah, leaving the Palestinians with two separate administrations.
A first deadline under the accord was met, with Hamas handing control of Gaza's borders to the PA on November 1.
But more difficult issues remain, and a number of previous attempts at reconciliation have failed.
After the 2007 power shift, the PA continued to pay around 60,000 staff in Gaza, despite the vast majority not working.
Hamas has hired around 50,000 civil servants to replace them in the past decade, and the fate of those staff members is a key sticking point, with unions insisting on a settlement.
On Tuesday, Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah called on employees of the cash-strapped PA to return to their former jobs in the Gaza Strip, with Hamas criticising the move.
The reconciliation agreement stipulates they have until February to find a solution for the Gaza employees, which could include merging the two civil services.
The future of Hamas's powerful armed wing is another key dispute between the parties, with the Islamist group refusing to disarm.
Nickolay Mladenov, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, encouraged the factions to press ahead Wednesday after meetings with Egyptian officials in Gaza overseeing the reconciliation process.
"The agreement that was reached in Cairo is a very important agreement," he told journalists.
"It provides a good framework through which to bring the West Bank and Gaza back under a single legitimate Palestinian Authority."
Mladenov also expressed hope that the agreement would lead to an easing of humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, which suffers from a lack of basic services such as electricity and clean water.