Fatah seeks to mend rift before elections

Faction submits candidate list to rival official slate


JERUSALEM -- The Fatah movement that dominates Palestinian politics was immersed in turmoil yesterday as leaders sought to avert a potentially damaging party split five weeks before elections to parliament.

Members of Fatah's so-called young guard insisted they had no intention of backing down after submitting a list of candidates to rival the official Fatah slate. The renegades offered a candidate roster, under the name of a new party called The Future, with jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti at the top.

The official Fatah slate also placed Barghouti in the top slot. But associates of the jailed activist said he would stick with the new group despite worries that a split in Fatah could give an electoral boost to the militant group Hamas, which had been viewed as Fatah's main rival in the Jan. 25 elections.

"We are going on ahead with our list, and we are not backing up in any way," said Saad Nimr, who directs a campaign to free Barghouti from an Israeli prison.

Barghouti is popular among Palestinians, respected by many peace-minded Israelis and seen as a possible leader of a future Palestinian state. However, he is serving five life sentences in connection with fatal attacks on Israelis during the recent conflict, and Israeli officials have said he would not be released to serve.

His name was placed on The Future's slate by his wife, Fadwa. Nimr said the committee headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that assembled the official Fatah list did not have Barghouti's permission before adding his name.

The breakaway list includes Mohammed Dahlan, the minister of civil affairs, and national security adviser Jibril Rajoub. The new group grew out of rising tensions within Fatah between a restive younger generation of activists and an old guard associated with the late Yasser Arafat. Among the latter is Ahmed Korei, who stepped down as prime minister yesterday to run for parliament.

Members of the so-called young guard felt they were crowded out of power by a party structure they disparage as corrupt, rife with favoritism and unpopular on the street.

Meanwhile, Palestinian voters in a number of communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip went to the polls in the latest round of municipal voting. Elections took place in 40 municipalities, including the large West Bank cities of Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin. An exit poll showed Hamas likely to win control of local councils easily in Nablus and El Birah, a town next to Ramallah. The poll, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, showed Hamas leading in Jenin and Fatah with the edge in Ramallah.

Voters said they were closely watching the events taking place within Fatah. Outside a Ramallah polling station, Mazen Ibrahim, a 46-year-old teacher who belongs to Fatah, cautioned against too swift a change of party leadership.

"The older generation has leaders who have many years of experience, and they should not be thrown out so easily," he said.

Fatah leaders said they hoped to prevent a lasting rift by getting the two groups back together in time for the elections. Under Palestinian law, parties have two more weeks to make limited changes to their candidate lists, including scratching names or moving candidates to a higher position to improve their chance of being elected.

Splitting Fatah votes could help Hamas, which is taking part in the Palestinian parliament's elections for the first time. Polls had given Fatah a healthy lead but did not take into account a possible party schism.

"These are difficult circumstances," said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official, who is running as a Fatah candidate in the Jericho district. Half of the parliament's 132 seats are to be distributed by district, the other half by party list.

Erekat said the competing lists did not represent a full-blown rupture because they resulted not over philosophical differences but over which candidates were given prominence.

Some Fatah activists suggested the upstart party could lure voters who might have turned to Hamas to protest against mismanagement that has hurt the Palestinian Authority under Fatah rule. It also seemed possible that the two Fatah factions could form a formidable alliance once a new parliament is seated.

Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University, said it was possible the two Fatah groups would come to terms before party slates are closed to changes after Jan. 1.

Nonetheless, Jarbawi said, the developments have laid bare various fault lines within Fatah, including age and background. Those divisions have grown harder to conceal since the death last year of Arafat, who served as the glue for a movement of disparate parts, he said.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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