|Jenin's guns overshadow
In poll run-up, Abu Mazen embraces Israel's most wanted
Conal Urquhart in Jenin
Sunday January 2, 2005
The sense of anticipation was palpable as 10,000 men and women sang Palestinian revolutionary songs. They surged around a black Mercedes and then the source of the excitement was among them; a shock of light grey hair in a sea of black hair.
The crowd's diminutive hero was Mahmoud Abbas, Fatah's candidate for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, who was bringing his message of an end to fighting and a focus on negotiations to Jenin, the city that has come to symbolise the Palestinian intifada.
Abu Mazen, as he is known, has a commanding lead in the opinion polls. The Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion announced on Boxing Day that he has 51 per cent support. In second place is Mustafa Barghouti of the New Palestinian Initiative with 21 per cent. There are five other candidates. While victory seems certain for Abu Mazen in the elections a week from today, his trip to Jenin showed the difficulty he faces in trying to represent the Palestinian struggle while also trying to extinguish it.
Abu Mazen did not take any easy options on his visit. He went to the graveyard and refugee camp. He embraced Israel's most wanted man, Zacaria Zubeida, leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, and accepted his protection. The secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive committee had little security on his walkabout apart from Zubeida's gunmen, all of whom Israel would consider legitimate targets for assassination or arrest.
The only opposition Abu Mazen faced was an egg hurled at his car and a stone thrown by a child. Voices of dissent were quickly hushed by the gunmen. The main event of the visit was a rally at a Jenin school. Before his arrival, hundreds of men were lined in chains to protect the entrance of Abu Mazen's car. Other chains were made up of Fatah youth in everyday clothes.
As the wait went on, the chains became a massive scrum, pushing in different directions with no clear focus. The leaders of the forces shouted and issued contradictory orders, to the point where no one knew what they were trying to protect or what they were pushing against.
Then came Abu Mazen's Jenin bodyguards, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a group of determined younng men in blue and green bomber jackets with rifles pointing in the air. Zubeida remonstrated with the crowd and told the commanders of the security forces that they were causing the chaos.
At a meeting in Bethlehem, Abu Mazen was asked about the absurdity of spending 32 per cent of the budget on security forces who can provide no security. In Jenin, they could barely control their own people. The only real authority was Zubeida.
Abu Mazen had no intention of rocking the boat. He praised the resilience of Jenin and did not talk about his keynote policy - that the militarisation of the intifada was a mistake and violence should be replaced by negotiation. 'Jenin has fought, alongside Rafah and Khan Yunis and the rest, for an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, without settlements and with a just solution for the rights of refugees,' he said.
He added: 'We want a state of law, with no one above the law.' But in reference to Zubeida, he said: 'We want security and peace for our brothers who are wanted by the Israelis.'
Amid more chaos, Abu Mazen left and Zubeida was carried to the podium. 'When the voice of the gun is heard, everyone shuts up.' At this point, his gunmen fired volleys into the air to make the point. 'For the sake of the prisoners and the martyrs, we have chosen Abu Mazen as our candidate ... Long live the intifada.'
The campaign of Barghouti is different: no bodyguards, no guns and smaller crowds. He has small public meetings where he takes questions. In his travels he has been arrested twice by the Israelis. Last week the former communist began his campaigning at the Ramallah Chamber of Commerce. He announced he had the backing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a once important PLO faction which has become marginal since the Soviet Union's end.
Barghouti is against the peace 'road map', which he says provides for Israel's security concerns and not Palestinian interests. He is against the 'militarisation of Palestinian society', but supports the right of the Palestinians to resist the Israeli occupation.
His main appeal is that he is not part of the Palestinian Authority or the PLO, both seen as corrupt. There have been rumours that the militant Hamas group, which is boycotting the election, may discreetly endorse Barghouti to cut back Abu Mazen's lead and reduce his power if he does win.
Israel and the Middle East
World news guide
A chronology of events in the Middle East
25.06.2002: Full text of George Bush's speech on Palestinian statehood
The issue explained
04.06.2003: Crisis in the Middle East
How the Israelis and Palestinians came to war
The best journalism on the conflict, from around the web
Israeli Knesset (parliament)
Israeli ministry of foreign affairs
Israeli government site
Office of the Israeli prime minister
Palestinian Ministry of Information
Israel Insider (Israel)
Jerusalem Post (Israel)
Arabic Media Internet Network (Palestinian)
Palestine Chronicle (Palestinian)
Electronic Intifada (Palestinian)
Bitter Lemons (Israeli-Palestinian)