Vacuum left by Arafat threatens to split Fatah

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Sitting in a sparsely furnished safe house in the heart of the old city, Nassar Jumaa is unhesitating about whom he would like the Fatah Revolutionary Council to pick today as its candidate in January's elections to succeed Yasser Arafat. "Marwan Barghouti is the best choice for us. He is better at dealing with resistance and the cause of our national rights."

Although you can hear this sentiment from many younger Palestinians, Mr Jumaa's words carry particular weight. For, at 38, he is not merely a self-proclaimed member of the Fatah "young guard" but the leader of the much depleted al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and top of Israel's wanted list in Nablus.

Mr Jumaa would like to see the 60- to 70,000-strong Fatah membership consulted by a referendum which, he says, would deliver a resounding majority for Mr Barghouti, who was jailed last June for links with five murders.

As Mr Jumaa acknowledges, however, the Fatah council is almost certain to nominate the former prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, who Jack Straw will meet today. Which leaves Mr Barghouti pondering whether to cause a momentous split in Fatah by running anyway.

The defining issues for Mr Jumaa, and for many like him, do not include the Oslo accords or the idea of a two-state solution, strongly supported by both Mr Abbas and Mr Barghouti.

They do, he says, include the intifada itself which Mr Barghouti has defended. By contrast, Mr Abbas has been critical of the intifada, arguing that it has undermined, rather than advanced, most of the goals it aimed for.

In his office a few hundred yards away, Taysir Nasrullah, a member of the Palestinian National Council ­ the PLO's parliament ­ sees himself as just as much a member of Fatah's young guard as Mr Jumaa. Both admire Mr Barghouti. But while they agree about much ­ the need to eradicate corruption in the Palestinian Authority and for fresh elections to change the composition of Fatah ­ they disagree about Mr Barghouti's suitability as a candidate in January.

Indeed, says Mr Nasrullah: "I gave him advice: 'You are spokesman for the young guard. However, you are in jail.' What I told him is that it's not your turn now. I advised him to declare his support for Abu Mazen."

An emotional meeting of Fatah "young guards" in Bethlehem last night came down in favour of urging Mr Barghouti to do just that, despite a reportedly tearful appeal by Mr Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, to back him as president as a means of pressuring Israel to release him from jail. Despite Mrs Barghouti's accusation that his former Fatah comrades were abandoning her imprisoned husband to his fate, momentum, even among Fatah's young guards, appeared to be growing behind Mr Abbas' candidacy.

Mr Nasrullah says that, in return, the Fatah central committee should co-opt Mr Barghouti as one of its members.

He says that Abu Mazen showed that he was not a mere creature of the "old guard" central committee when he clashed with it over his demands for reform when he was briefly Prime Minister last year.

"He resigned because of them," Mr Nasrullah says, pointedly adding that the al-Aqsa Martyrs "respected Yasser Arafat even though he was the source of corruption".

The job of the "young guard'' now, Mr Nasrullah says, is to press a probable Abu Mazen presidency "to fire all the rotten symbols of corruption in the cabinet and other forums, now that the guy who was protecting them has gone".

While rejecting the criticism of the late president, Mr Jumaa would go still further, having been a co-author of a leaflet issuing veiled threats against the lives of ministers and officials involved in activities such as the sale of subsidised Egyptian cement to Israel. Mr Nasrullah remains convinced Mr Abbas is the right man at the right time, and he will need the support of the young guard to stand up against the old guard and usher in a cleaner, more democratic Palestine. "He is the only man who can be the bridge between the young and the old guard," he said.