Young guard rises in Palestinian politics

Fatah Party taps militants as candidates to draw support from Hamas ahead of parliamentary vote.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Before becoming a front- runner for the Palestinian parliament in this city, militant Nasser Juma spent most of his life either in jail or as a fugitive. At one point, he was nearly killed by Israelis and, he says, tortured by Palestinians.

But now Mr. Juma represents one of the best hopes for the future success of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's ruling Fatah Party. Party leaders hope his militant credentials will draw support from many Palestinians who are fed up with Fatah's domestic failures. Also, Fatah is looking to stem the rising political fortunes of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas party ahead of the Jan. 25 legislative elections, the Palestinians' first in a decade.

Along with imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, Juma, who is in his late thirties, was one of a handful of prominent Palestinian militants to emerge victorious over graying Fatah Party politicians in the first round of a primary election held in four West Bank cities last weekend.

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Primaries in the Gaza Strip Monday were disrupted by armed gunmen belonging to Fatah, the party founded by the late Yasser Arafat. The violence was the most recent manifestation of the conflict within the party pitting Arafat contemporaries who are largely considered corrupt against homegrown activists who came of age during the first and second Palestinian uprising.

"The young generation considers the old generation to be responsible for this chronic state of corruption. It refuses reform. It refuses change," says Juma. "The young generation would like to see a leadership which is empowered to lead. I am able to comprehend their desires and needs. I am able to respond to them."

Although Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, retains healthy approval ratings 10 months after being elected president, his political party has been in danger of buckling because of years of ossification under the autocratic rule of Arafat. Many say that veteran Fatah politicians have turned a blind eye to cronyism, nepotism, and lawlessness among the Palestinian Authority (PA) and its security forces.

The reputation for corruption has all but sapped the ability of Abbas's PA to enforce his election promise of "one authority and one gun" in the West Bank and Gaza. Even enforcing discipline over Abbas's own party has proven difficult.

Fatah's lack of discipline has hurt it in a series of municipal elections in the West Bank and Gaza. In these, Hamas won control of dozens of local councils. The militant group has pitched itself as a party of reformers and straight shooters.

A poll by Nablus's A-Najah University released last week suggested that 38 percent of Palestinians will support Fatah in the upcoming parliamentary elections compared with 22 percent who will back Hamas.

With half of the 132-seat parliament decided in local districts, Juma and his contemporaries could help the Abbas reinvigorate and unify political party. "They can get out the votes on the street," says Mohammed Yaghi, a Palestinian political analyst. "They have much support from the people and you can't ignore them."

Because of the calm in fighting with Israel, Juma says he is no longer wanted by Israel, a relief that has allowed him to tentatively fall into line with Abbas's preference for negotiations over armed conflict. "We are committed to the nonviolence mode," the candidate said. "It's an attempt to reflect the public sentiment of the people."

And yet Juma is highly critical of what he sees as Abbas's neglect of domestic reform in favor of focusing on the peace process. "We say that Abu Mazen is the Gorbachev of Fatah," he says. "He is not concerned about keeping a strong Fatah. On the contrary, he seeks to melt it down."

Reclining on a sofa after returning to his Nablus flat for the first time in weeks, Juma wears slippers and entertains his 3-year-old son, Mazen. With penetrating dark eyes, and soft facial features, he could be mistaken for a catalog model. But his good looks belie a difficult history.

Arrested at 15 for throwing Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers, he spent eight years of his adolescence and early adulthood in and out of jails. Though he was released after the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, he soon found himself jailed again, this time by the newly established PA. "Until this day I don't understand why," he says. "The Authority was not behaving responsibly.''

While in jail, he says, he was so badly tortured that he was hospitalized. Upon his release in 1997, he left the West Bank for Britain, he thought, for good. But Juma relented, and returned to Nablus to "challenge the situation."

When Palestinians began the second uprising in September 2000, it reflected not only disappointment over the stalled peace process but also a rebellion against PA leaders, Juma says.

"The young generation on the ground has many needs. They were neglected," says Ahmed Idik, the Fatah official who oversaw the primary balloting. "It's a victory for the young and the strong generation. The hard political line."

Politicians like Juma are considered to be in the same mold as Mr. Barghouti, the militant politician who advocated using both negotiations and armed rebellion to reach a two-state peace settlement with Israel. Barghouti, serving back-to-back life sentences in Israel for a murder conviction, was the top vote getter in Ramallah.

The Fatah young guard have thrown their support behind Abbas because they believe he'll carry out the reforms that will help them extend their control over the party. But the Palestinian president has yet to convince them of opposition to the armed uprising.

"Being engaged in politics is one mode of resistance,'' Juma says. "It doesn't mean I'm ending one struggle to enter another."

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