GAZA, (Reuters) – Rebels in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas” Fatah party banded together to run for parliament on a competing ticket on Wednesday, sparking one of the gravest crises in the dominant political movement”s 40-year history.
The split in Fatah”s ranks occurred as Israel launched air strikes in the Gaza Strip, killing four Palestinian militants in the latest of a series of stepped-up military attacks since a suicide bombing in the Jewish state last week.
The rebel list, headed by jailed firebrand Marwan Barghouthi, signalled a bold bid by Fatah”s so-called Young Guard to shake up the party and fend off an unprecedented challenge by Hamas Islamists in Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.
"This is a new dawn," Mohammed Dahlan, a veteran Palestinian power-broker high on the Barghouthi-led list, told reporters.
"We will remain loyal to this movement, and Fatah will come out victorious," said Dahlan, whose fellow rebels fear the party”s Old Guard of leaders could pitchfork the party into disaster in the polls because they are widely seen as corrupt.
But in a surprise riposte, Abbas loyalists also placed Barghouthi at the top of the official Fatah list, filed minutes after al-Mustaqbal and just in time to meet a midnight deadline.
"We hope that there will be only one list," said Foreign Minister Nasser al-Kidwa.
Central Election Committee officials said Barghouthi — who is serving a life term in an Israeli prison over militant attacks carried out during a Palestinian revolt now five years old — had until Jan. 1 to decide which list to be on.
Barghouthi”s wife and representative, Fadwa, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Founded in 1965, Fatah has guided the Palestinian struggle for statehood until a recent grassroots challenge by Hamas and other Islamists who enjoy a reputation for transparency.
Hamas is running for parliament for the first time.
CHALLENGE TO ABBAS
The challenge to Abbas occurred as he struggled to contain increasing unrest by disaffected Fatah fighters in Gaza, viewed as a testing ground for Palestinian statehood following Israel”s withdrawal in September after 38 years of occupation.
Abbas has also pushed for peacemaking with Israel, a position likely to be undermined should Hamas — sworn to the Jewish state”s destruction — win big in the elections.
Many of Barghouthi”s supporters believe he could be freed under a peace deal with the Jewish state.
Adding electoral muscle to his list — titled al-Mustaqbal or "The Future" — were Dahlan and Jibril al-Rajoub, strongmen in Gaza and the occupied West Bank respectively and credited with brokering past confidence-building measures with Israel.
Asked about the split, Fatah official Hatem Abdel-Qader said: "This does not mean they leave Fatah, but it means clearly dividing Fatah between the Old Guard and the Young Guard."
On Tuesday, the Central Elections Committee briefly suspended all operations when gunmen from Fatah stormed election offices to demand polls be delayed, then battled police in Gaza. Abbas has vowed to hold the elections on time.
Persistent violence despite an Israeli-Palestinian truce earlier this year has diminished chances of resuming peace efforts, on hold as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepares to campaign for re-election in a March poll.
Sharon, who quit his rightist Likud party last month to form a new centrist movement, wants to counter rightist opponents” accusations that Israel”s Gaza pullout rewarded militants.
Witnesses said an Israeli aircraft fired on a car at a Gaza border crossing on Wednesday, killing three members of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a militant coalition, and one from al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group in Fatah.
Al-Aqsa said it fired three rockets into Israel and the PRC said it fired two. There were no reports of casualties.
An Israeli military spokesman said the PRC members were planning a car bombing.
Israel launched a new campaign of air strikes after an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber killed five Israelis at a shopping mall on Dec. 5.