Fatah unifies for poll while Israel bombs Gaza zone

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The popular jailed activist Marwan Barghouti is to head a unified list of Fatah candidates in a move designed to strengthen the faction's chances of defeating Hamas in parliamentary elections next month.

The Palestinian Authority's dominant but divided Fatah organisation yesterday managed to produce a single candidates' list more weighted in favour of the faction's "new guard".

The move came as Israel shelled a "buffer zone" in northern Gaza to curb Qassam rocket attacks after dropping leaflets warning Palestinian residents that their lives would be at risk if they strayed into the zone. The reflects concerted pressure from the "new guard" by excludingmore members of the institutions dominated by the "old guard" ­ including the powerful Central Committee and Fatah Revolutionary Council.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, told reporters as the new list was registered formally with the Palestinian Electoral Commission in Ramallah: "It was a good opportunity for Fatah to unite in one list agreed upon by all... it is important now to go towards the election united."

The decision represents further progress by Mr Barghouti and his supporters over a group of ageing Arafat appointees led by Ahmad Qureia, the Prime Minister. Mr Qureia has already said he will not stand as a candidate.

The newly unified list will make it easier for Fatah to disown the corruption that Palestinians widely associate with the "old guard" ; opinion polls also show that Mr Barghouti's grouping has a better chance against Hamas, which scored a notable success in local polls this month by fighting on an anti-corruption formula. But it still faces formidable obstacles after its highly public splits. The new list still contains several prominent "old guard" members

Azzam al-Ahmad, one veteran Fatah leader, said: "This split will remain for a very long time. The wound has not been healed." In Gaza, the faction-fighting continued even as the agreement was being reached when gunmen from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, linked to Fatah, exchanged fire with police in two separate gun battles outside election offices in the strip.

The international "quartet" of the European Union, the US, United Nations and Russia last night said Hamas should not be part of any new post-election Cabinet as long as it failed to renounce violence.

Meanwhile, in northern Gaza, residents last night reported hearing explosions in the area of the buffer zone, an area with no villages but with some isolated farms, which runs along the border with Israel.

The zone includes the abandoned Jewish settlements of Dugit, Elei Sinai and Nissanit and includes sites from which rockets can be launched by Islamic Jihad and other small groups towards the Israeli town of Ashkelon. This month, one rocket landed close to the city's power station. As Israeli forces imposed the 6pm deadline for the zone to be cleared of Palestinians, Major Avital Leibowich of the Israeli Defence Forcessaid: "We are stepping up the level in our response. We can't endanger the lives of our people."

But Mr Abbas said: "Israel has left the Gaza Strip and has no right to come back. They should not make any pretext."

The escalation of Israeli operations came after jets struck what Israel said was a Palestinian militant training base in Lebanon early yesterday, hours after Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon hit three Israeli houses in Kiryat Shmona. There were no injuries. The base was understood to be used by the Popular Front for the Liberation for Palestine ­ General Command, a small faction.