JERUSALEM — The Fatah movement, which dominates Palestinian politics, was immersed in turmoil Thursday as leaders sought to avert a split six weeks before parliamentary elections.
Members of Fatah's so-called young guard, who submitted a list of candidates to rival the official Fatah slate, said they had no intention of backing down. The renegades offered a roster under the name of Al Mustaqbal, or "the Future," with jailed leader Marwan Barghouti at the top.
The official Fatah slate also placed Barghouti in the top slot. But his associates said he would stick with the new group despite fears that a split could give a boost to the militant group Hamas, which has been viewed as Fatah's main rival in the Jan. 25 elections.
"We are going on ahead with our list, and we are not backing up in any way," said Saad Nimr, who directs a campaign to free Barghouti.
The West Bank leader is popular among Palestinians, respected by many peace-minded Israelis and seen as a possible leader of a future Palestinian state. However, Barghouti is serving five life sentences in connection with fatal attacks on Israelis during the recent conflict, and Israeli officials have said he will not be released to serve.
Barghouti's name was placed on the Future slate by his wife, Fadwa. Nimr said the committee headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that assembled the official Fatah list did not have Barghouti's permission to add his name.
The breakaway list includes Mohammed Dahlan, the minister of civil affairs, and national security advisor Jibril Rajoub. The new group grew out of rising tensions in Fatah between a restive younger generation of activists and an old guard associated with the late Yasser Arafat. Among the latter is Ahmed Korei, who stepped down as prime minister Thursday to run for parliament.
Members of the young guard felt they were crowded out by a party structure they disparage as corrupt, rife with favoritism and unpopular.
Meanwhile, Palestinian voters in a number of communities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip went to the polls in the latest round of municipal voting. Elections took place in 40 municipalities, including the large cities of Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin in the West Bank.
An exit poll showed Hamas was likely to win control of local councils in Nablus and El Birah, a town next to Ramallah. The poll, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, also showed Hamas leading in Jenin and Fatah having the edge in Ramallah.
Voters said they were closely watching the events taking place within Fatah. Outside a Ramallah polling station, Mazen Ibrahim, a 46-year-old teacher who belongs to Fatah, cautioned against too swift a change of party leadership.
"The older generation has leaders who have many years of experience, and they should not be thrown out so easily," he said.
Fatah leaders said they hoped to prevent a lasting rift by getting the two groups back together in time for the elections. Under Palestinian law, parties have two more weeks to make limited changes to their candidate lists, including scratching names or moving candidates to a higher position to improve their chance of being elected.
A split in Fatah votes could help Hamas, which is taking part in the Palestinian parliamentary elections for the first time. Polls before the potential split had given Fatah a lead over Hamas.
"These are difficult circumstances," said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official, who is running as a Fatah candidate in the Jericho district. Half of the parliament's 132 seats are to be distributed by district, the other half by party list.
Erekat said the competing lists did not represent a full-blown rupture because they resulted not from philosophical differences but from disagreement over which candidates to give prominence.
"It's not a conflict over a political program. It's a conflict over who's No. 9 and who's No. 13," he said.
Some Fatah activists suggested the new slate could attract voters who might have turned to Hamas to protest against the mismanagement that has beset the Palestinian Authority. It also seemed possible that the two Fatah factions could form a formidable alliance once a new parliament was seated.
Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Birzeit University, said it was possible the two Fatah groups would come to terms before party slates are closed to changes Jan. 1.
"From now until the end of this month, they have the possibility to reunify and the hard-core attempts to compromise are going to be in the next couple of weeks," he said. "I think there's a good possibility this will come to an agreement."
Nonetheless, Jarbawi said, the developments have laid bare fault lines within Fatah, including those based on age and background. Those divisions have grown harder to paper over since the death last year of Arafat, who served as the glue for a movement of disparate parts, he said.
"It's like a puzzle of 2,000 pieces that's come open and loose," Jarbawi said. "Now there's an attempt to get the puzzle back again. I'm not sure this is possible."
\o7Times special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report\f7.