GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas on Monday raised the possibility of negotiating with Israel through a third party, an overture made on the final day of campaigning for this week's Palestinian parliament elections.
Fatah candidates accompanied by thousands of supporters made a pilgrimage to Yasser Arafat's Gaza City home, hoping to parlay the memory of the iconic leader into crucial votes and beat off a strong challenge from Hamas in Wednesday's elections.
"Negotiation is not a taboo," said Mahmoud Zahar, a prominent Hamas leader in Gaza and a top candidate for the group. He said Hamas would be willing to talk to Israel through a third party, similar to past negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
Outside Arafat's house, a giant poster of the late Palestinian leader and smaller posters of Fatah fighters hung from a stage where 2,000 party backers, pledged in chorus their fealty "to the blood of the martyrs to the wounds of the wounded, to the suffering of the prisoners — and to vote for the Fatah list.
Recent polls show Hamas, which has long sworn its commitment to Israel's destruction, gaining ground against Fatah in the group's first legislative run. Two days before the vote, the race for the 132-seat parliament was too close to call.
Across Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians plastered posters on walls and electricity poles, strung up banners and cruised the streets with loudspeakers, trying to drum up last-minute support for their candidates.
Mohammed Dahlan, a leading Fatah candidate, told the crowd in Gaza City that in coming to Arafat's house, they were expressing their commitment to the late Palestinian leader's lifelong goal — "establishing an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, and a right and just solution for (Palestinian) refugees."
Dahlan and eight other Fatah candidates walked to the gates of Arafat's house decorated with yellow Fatah flags, then went inside where the late leader's pencils and papers lay untouched since he last visited in 2001.
Invoking Arafat's memory was a measure of how stiff a challenge Fatah is facing from Hamas, which over the past year suspended suicide bombings against Israel.
At a time when the corruption-tainted Fatah has been unable to take control of lawless Palestinian streets, Hamas has won the confidence of many voters with its image of incorruptibility and its track record of providing health, education and welfare services. It also has argued that its attacks on Israelis, and not diplomacy, caused Israel to withdraw from Gaza over the summer.
Huzeifa Abu Fadel, 22, a Hamas campaign worker, predicted confidently "we will see green in the legislative council," a reference to Hamas' signature color.
Monday marked the final day of early voting for 58,000 members of the security forces. They were asked to cast ballots early, to be free to secure polling stations on election day.
Police officer Hisham Assam, 39, said he supported Fatah because backing Hamas would be too big a gamble. Fatah has been the torchbearer of the Palestinian cause for 40 years but has slipped in the polls, with voters complaining of official corruption and mismanagement.
"With Fatah, at least we know what we are getting," Assam said. "With Hamas, we are heading into the unknown, because they don't have any programs for us."
In the West Bank city of Hebron, a Hamas poster declared, "With one hand we will build, with the other we will fight." A Fatah poster boasted that the group was "the first to launch the bullet and to resist the occupation, and the first to launch democracy."
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, a Hamas banner read, "Israel and America said no to Hamas. What do you say?"
Pollsters have predicted that turnout will top 85 percent, with voters energized by having a first real alternative to Fatah.
The small Islamic Jihad militant group issued an election boycott call on Monday, but it was not expected to have an impact. The group is sitting out because the election is an outgrowth of Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements.
Hamas' participation has created friction with Israel and the U.S., but Abbas hopes the group will moderate by joining the political process. Hamas has not said whether it would join the government or hunker down in the opposition, where it would be under less pressure to abandon its anti-Israel ideology.
Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni urged the international community on Monday to reject the participation of armed militants in the Palestinian legislature.
The U.S. advocates the spread of democratic elections in the Mideast, and did not pressure Abbas to block Hamas from the race. But because it considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization, "if members of Hamas become members of a Palestinian government, we will not deal with those individuals," U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said.
Although a lot is at stake in this historic vote, the campaign has gone relatively smoothly, with limited violence.
But in the campaign's waning hours, emotions heated up. In a debate with Dahlan Sunday night on Lebanese TV, Hamas leader Zahar recalled how Palestinian police cracked several of his ribs during an interrogation. Zahar criticized the Palestinian Authority for dealing with Israel, while Dahlan defended negotiations that yielded real benefits for the Palestinians.