Fatah invokes memory of Arafat as campaign closes

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The Independent Online

Fatah went all out to maximise its vote in tomorrow's parliamentary elections, even as it began to come to terms with the prospect that Hamas was on the point of ending its virtual monopoly within the Palestinian political institutions.

Mohammed Dahlan, the most prominent Fatah leader in Gaza, appealed for support outside the late president's house before travelling to his home base of Khan Yunis to speakto a chaotic but enthusiastic rally of several thousand supporters.

He told Fatah activists at the old presidential residence in Gaza City that they would be sending a "loving letter" to Mr Arafat and committing themselves to his life goal of "establishing an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, and a right and just solution for (Palestinian) refugees."

A leading Fatah candidate, Sami Masherawi, told the rally: "Fatah apologises for the mistakes of the past. We will not allow a few corrupt figures to damage the Fatah reputation." Another Fatah activist, Fouad Madi, declared: "It was we who carried the olive branch and the gun. We used force and stones first. We wrote our struggle in blood and for 50 years we led the struggle."

In a message designed to defend Fatah against Hamas's persistent claims to have "driven" Israel out of Gaza, a huge painted banner depicted an armed and masked Fatah militant in combat and proclaimed: "In Gaza we're victorious and to the West Bank and Jerusalem we are going."

But despite the high-flown rhetoric of the campaign for the Palestinian Legislative Council elections, it was clear in Mr Dahlan's home town that more mundane - and largely internal - issues were preoccupying most voters.

While Fatah supporters thronged to the rally amid sporadic shooting into the air, a group of women at the poverty-stricken Khan Yunis refugee camp explained why they were likely to vote for Hamas.

Samaher Sidha, sitting outside the bullet-riddled home of a neighbour on what had been the front line between the camp and the Jewish settlement of Neve Dekalim until the Israeli withdrawal in August, pointed to the rubble of a house that was demolished by Israel.

Mrs Sidha, a 23-year-old mother-of-four, said Mr Dahlan had visited and "promised he would deal with all this. But we heard this before in the last elections. There were lots of promises but nothing was implemented." Acknowledging that this was an area where Hamas supplied food and financial help to poor families, including her own, Mrs Sidha said of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority: "In 10 years they haven't done anything. We want to change them, we have to try something new." Citing "corruption and security chaos" as key issues, she said: "Why did the authority increase the wages of their employees? That was a bribe. We elected Fatah and [Mr] Dahlan but they haven't done anything about unemployment or started construction work."

There were similar worries even among enthusiastic supporters of Mr Dahlan. Samira Tawfiq, 27, a Palestinian Authority employee, said she would vote for Fatah and hoped Mr Dahlan would be the Palestinian president "in the future". She added that the lack of internal security - with armed feuding between Palestinians - and unemployment were the key issues. " We used to see blood when the occupation was here but we are still seeing it. What we need is a strong leader. Fatah needs to change. It's not only me, people love Fatah but they want to see it change. But they are not extremists; they will negotiate with Israel."

With the latest survey by the respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki showing Fatah at 47 per cent and Hamas at 42, the popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti appeared, in an interview from jail on Sunday, to hold out the possibility of power-sharing with Hamas. Mr Dahlan, who unlike Mr Barghouti is standing as a district candidate and cannot be certain of a parliamentary seat until the election is over, did not go so far yesterday but said he was happy that Hamas was at last participating in a national election.

Convulsed by the election yesterday, Khan Yunis was a riot of competing banner-waving processions, including a parade by the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine led by young men folk dancing.

The ultra-militant Islamic Jihad, which is responsible for the last six suicide bombings in Israel, urged Palestinians not to vote.