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Rocking the Vote in Gaza, West Bank

Campaigns Fire Up Palestinians for Presidential Poll

By Molly Moore and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 7, 2005; Page A10

DEIR BALAH, Gaza Strip -- In his campaign for the Palestinian presidency, Mustafa Barghouti has been dragged through the dirt, detained at gunpoint and arrested by Israeli security forces.

His campaign caravan is a collection of half a dozen cars and vans, led by a flatbed truck with massive loudspeakers perched on the back. He campaigns like a populist -- walking the streets, grabbing the hands of passersby, darting into shops in this city in the central Gaza Strip and wading through market stalls heaped with freshly picked tangerines as mobs of young men and children chase after him in impromptu street parades.

Mustafa Barghouti, running second in polls, campaigns near Ramallah. (Loay Abu Haykel -- Reuters)

_____Palestinian Elections_____
Multimedia Feature: washingtonpost.com videographer Travis Fox chronicles the Palestinian presidential campaigns leading up to Sunday's election.
FAQ: How the Vote Works

Barghouti, 50, a physician and human rights activist, stands little chance of winning Sunday's presidential election, the Palestinians' first in eight years. The front-runner is Mahmoud Abbas, 69, the former prime minister, who is backed by the powerful machinery of the Fatah movement, the dominant Palestinian political party, founded by Yasser Arafat.

The party organizes Abbas's rallies, buses in the participants and helps finance his television ads, billboards and wall posters. Since two security guards were killed during a shootout at an Abbas appearance in Gaza City before the campaign began, Palestinian security forces have inundated his campaign routes and rallies.

The campaigns have energized and captivated Palestinians, who have embraced Sunday's vote as an opportunity to reform a government they have long criticized as corrupt, inefficient and unresponsive.

"This is the beginning of the end for the glorification of leaders," said Said Hayek, 23, a Gaza City college student. "This election will reaffirm that this is a democratic country, not a kingdom."

Across the West Bank and Gaza, storefronts, streetlights and walls are plastered with colorful campaign placards. Buildings are draped with 40-by-15-foot banners of Abbas looking like a banker in gray suit and tie, in pointed contrast to Arafat's military fatigues and checkered headdress. Restaurants and stores are adorned with posters showing Barghouti surrounded by six Israeli soldiers and calmly pushing aside the muzzle of an M-16 rifle pointed at his chin. Walls throughout the Gaza Strip are covered in colorful graffiti exhorting citizens to vote.

Barghouti, an independent candidate who has complained that the Palestinian political establishment is giving Abbas an unfair boost over the six other candidates, said during a bumpy van ride over Gaza's rutted back roads this week that the election was "not as democratic as it should be, but it's the first time in the Arab world you're seeing strong competition -- we are leading the road to democracy."

A public opinion poll released Sunday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, supported by 65 percent of those surveyed, while Barghouti was favored by 22 percent. Five other candidates received a combined 5 percent. Eight percent of respondents said they were undecided.

The 14-day campaign period, which began Dec. 25, has not been without problems. Lesser-known candidates have had little time to build name recognition. Israel prohibited all seven candidates from publicly campaigning in East Jerusalem, home to about 185,000 registered voters, and Barghouti and other candidates say they have had difficulty navigating the hundreds of Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to reach campaign events.

Even so, rallies and appearances have been enthusiastic and boisterous. In the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, Abbas escaped a particularly unruly event by clambering through a window. When Barghouti reached the rural Gaza village of Mafarqua on Wednesday, he was greeted by a boy on a white horse and a volley of friendly gunfire.

"They're shooting in the air to greet me," Barghouti said as he climbed out of his white Ford campaign van. "This is the last thing I want."

One of the most difficult political minefields for the candidates has been balancing the domestic political need to avoid alienating militant groups with demands by some Palestinians and foreign nations that the next president curb the violence of the uprising, now in its fifth year.

Barghouti was endorsed by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has supplied his armed bodyguards on the campaign trail. Abbas was endorsed by the Fatah movement's armed wing, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which has waged a deadly campaign of suicide bombings against Israelis. Abbas was visibly uncomfortable at a recent rally in the northern West Bank city of Jenin when the local al-Aqsa Brigades leader, Zakaria Zbeida, and several of his armed fighters hoisted him onto their shoulders.

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