When Nasser Juma says Yasser Arafat led his people to "disaster" in the last years of his life, he speaks with authority. For as he puts it bluntly: "We are the generation that was most connected with the base of the Palestinian people. We were active in the first and second intifadas; we were active in the resistance. To whatever extent we believed in it, we were part of it."
It is this street credibility which makes Nasser Juma a typical member of the group that staged a dramatic breakaway from Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian faction, under the leadership of Marwan Barghouti late on Wednesday night. Mr Juma, 39, is already eighth on the list of the new faction "the Future", formed from Mr Barghouti's prison cell and splitting the organisation founded by Arafat and Abu Jihad in Kuwait in 1959.
Less than a year ago, Mr Juma was high on Israel's wanted list as one of the key Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade leaders in the West Bank. Mr Juma, now no longer on the run, topped the primary poll to select the Fatah candidates running for Nablus in next month's Palestinian Legislative Council elections. He did so as part of the "new guard" generation of Fatah activists seeking to supplant what he sees as the corrupt old leadership of the national movement that was installed in control of the Palestinian Authority by Arafat.
The crisis brings to a head weeks in which Fatah, under electoral pressure from Hamas, has been fighting over who should represent it in the PLC, the Palestinian parliament. Primaries in Gaza and the West Bank have been marred by gunfire in the street between rival gangs. On Wednesday, the Central Election Commission offices in Gaza and the West Bank closed after masked Fatah gunmen ransacked them.
In most primaries Mr Juma's generation won. In Ramallah, Mr Barghouti, the highly popular former Fatah secretary general in the West Bank, currently serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail after being convicted of involvement in attacks that killed five people during the intifada, spectacularly topped the poll.
Mr Juma is convinced that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, also "wants to send the old guard away. He is suffering from the old guard." Mr Abbas may himself be part of the older generation. But he personally insisted on putting Mr Barghouti top of the official Fatah candidates' list.
The appeal of men such as Mr Barghouti and Mr Juma could help him in the all-important task certainly if he is ever going to persuade the US to promote peace talks of winning a majority over Hamas. And as avowed reformists, the Barghouti faction's sizeable presence in the PLC may help him rehabilitate the PA's sclerotic apparatus.
But Mr Abbas was also obliged by the powerful Fatah central committee to accept Ahmad Qureia, his unpopular and unhelpful Prime Minister, in second place, along with several others of the committee and their henchmen. This triggered the breakaway one from which Mr Abbas spent three hours on the telephone on Wednesday night to Mr Barghouti's prison cell trying to dissuade him.
Mr Juma, who in the Nineties was severely tortured in a Palestinian jail on the orders of Yasser Arafat, as well as having spent eight years in Israeli prisons, does not exempt Israel from blame for inflaming tensions by its targeted operations against militants, and calls on it to withdraw from West Bank cities. But he has condemned the recent suicide bombing in Netanya and blames Iran for being behind other Islamic Jihad attacks. More strikingly, he believes that the intifada, or at least its form, played into the hands of the Israeli right, and to Ariel Sharon's goal of taking as much territory as was compatible with the demographic need to have an Israel with a Jewish majority.
"It was clear that the Israelis closed the door on us, but also let me be frank the Palestinian leadership under Arafat was folly, mistaken. They should have made a clear assessment of the question of who benefited from the intifada and that was Sharon." He is certainly not renouncing armed militancy in principle. But the leadership also wholly failed, in Mr Juma's view, to take account of the huge impact of 11 September, on international opinion.
"The resistance after 11 September should have kept itself far away from terrorism. Israel took advantage of 11 September to say that the Palestinians were terrorists. They besieged the cities, prevented people from moving between cities, used every technology against us. We are the people in the right, but we ... should behave more wisely."
Hamas's strategy of suicide bombing, which helped to "drag" the Fatah factions into suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, was, he believes, a catastrophe. "The leadership led by Arafat took us to disaster ... This is the fact." Many of these "pragmatic" in Mr Juma's own word criticisms of the intifada echo those made by President Abbas. But if Ariel Sharon wins the Israeli election and then, as Mr Juma and many others predict, seeks unilaterally to impose a new border that will annex East Jerusalem as well as significant tracts of the West Bank while maintaining a large measure of external control over what is left to the Palestinians, that will be no more acceptable to the Barghouti generation than it would have been to Arafat.
While he says "the most effective weapon is peace", the Juma formulation leaves the options for what may be a struggle "over many generations". Mr Juma doesn't say so, but they could include passive resistance, a refusal to accept an "interim" agreement based on such a border, and an international campaign against an "apartheid" division and perhaps a resumption of attacks on soldiers and settlers on the Palestinian side of the pre-1967 Green Line.
The Western diplomats who see the "new guard" as Fatah's best hope know it will not agree to anything short of a genuinely viable Palestinian state. But they believe its commitment to reform is essential to injecting urgently needed efficiency and transparency to the Palestinian Authority.
Such an outcome could make the US readier to press a third Sharon government to go further towards a final settlement. But that is far from certain. While Mr Juma says the decision to break away is fixed, Mr Abbas will lead efforts to fuse the two slates. In any case Mr Juma says Mr Abbas should nominate Mr Barghouti as prime minister, to increase leverage on Israel to release him. Mr Abbas would prefer Salam Fayed, who won international respect as Finance Minister and is standing with Hanan Ashrawi on an independent ticket.
Khalil Shikaki, the leading Palestinian analyst, points out that the methods of the "young guard" have hardly been above reproach and are anyway split between those like Barghouti and Juma, and others who do not accept either Barghouti's leadership or the de facto ceasefire. (One of those, Zacharia Zubeidi, the Al Aqsa Martyrs' leader in Jenin, even applauded this month's suicide bombing.) Initial results last night showing handsome Hamas local election victories suggest there are serious dangers in a Fatah split; they could yet persuade the two Fatah groups to compromise.
But the fact that ambitious politicians such as Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, hardly new faces, have joined the New Guard ticket is highly suggestive. This new generation of Palestinian leaders, however they stand, will probably make significant gains in elections next month. In the long run it could even be they, and perhaps Amir Peretz, the new Labour leader, who achieve the lasting peace to which they are publicly committed.Reuse content