Young activists in the ruling Fatah Party have broken off to form their own faction, dealing a bitter blow to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas ahead of January parliamentary elections and possibly boosting the electoral prospects of Hamas militants.
Fatah officials were negotiating feverishly with the new faction's leader, jailed uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, and his associates Thursday in an effort to keep them in the party.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the Fatah list would be reworked to put young activists in top spots where chances of election are best.
But Barghouti supporters said he was determined to contest the Jan. 25 vote on a separate slate after Abbas stacked the top of the Fatah list with corruption-tainted old-timers, largely disregarding the results of recent primaries that young activists won.
"It's too late," said Kadoura Fares, a leader of the young activists. "We approved primary elections to choose our candidates, but the president did not abide by that. They went with the old system of masters and slaves, and now we are more determined to go ahead with our list."
Local elections were being held Thursday in 42 West Bank towns, including the cities of Nablus and Ramallah. The results were likely to give an indication of the split's effect on next month's election. The Islamic militant group Hamas is hoping to capitalize on the disarray in Fatah.
Barghouti, serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for involvement in deadly attacks, has emerged as the most popular Fatah leader in West Bank primary elections. Former West Bank security chief Jibril Rajoub and Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan joined Barghouti in his new party, Fatah leaders said, adding weight to the list.
Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, submitted the breakaway slate of candidates, under the name, "The Future," to Palestinian election officials just before a midnight deadline Wednesday for parties to register candidates.
Fatah, the party of the late leader Yasser Arafat, has ruled Palestinian politics for four decades, gaining a reputation for corruption and nepotism along the way.
The "old guard" returned from exile with Arafat in the mid-1990s, while many of the young activists were in the West Bank and Gaza through the years, struggling against Israeli occupation.
Many Palestinians voting Thursday in Nablus said the split was likely to hurt Fatah in the local elections because it reinforced the impression of a party in disarray.
The political drama played out against a backdrop of violence.
Israel carried out three airstrikes Wednesday and early Thursday, killing four militants from the small Popular Resistance Committees in the first attack. Israel said the militants were on their way to attack the crossing in an explosives-laden car.
The second strike slightly wounded Khader Habib, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, the group that carried out a suicide bombing that killed five Israelis last week.
Early Thursday, an Israeli helicopter fired a missile at the house of a Popular Resistance leader in northern Gaza, wounding one of his relatives, residents said. The military said the target was a weapons storehouse.