- The Washington Times - Monday, January 23, 2006

MEDINET AL-ZAHRA’A, Gaza Strip — Gunfire echoed around this town’s main square during a late-afternoon rally for the hard-pressed Fatah movement.

The volleys were fired to provide dramatic emphasis to points being made by the Fatah speakers. But the gunmen’s purpose was immediately recognized in the Gaza Strip’s dusty back streets — it was a demonstration of revolutionary credentials in an answer to the popular appeal of the militant movement Hamas.

“We have to show we still haven’t lost our fighting spirit — there’s still fire in the belly,” said Azaam Shawwa, the Palestinian Authority’s energy minister and a member of the most prominent family in the Gaza Strip.

The party that the now-deceased Yasser Arafat formed and led as a Palestinian revolutionary movement is seeking desperately to hang on to control of the Palestinian legislature in a hotly contested election tomorrow.

Mr. Shawwa had been a guest speaker at one of four early-evening and night-time appearances at rallies in and around Gaza City.

After addressing hundreds of politely applauding spectators, he gingerly rode around a square on a brown mare ahead of a several four-wheel-drive vehicles adorned with yellow Fatah flags and gunmen hanging out of the half-open doors.

But the flag-waving procession produced little more than a few waves from Palestinian bystanders, a glance or two from a caretaker puffing on a water-pipe — and stiff muscles for a middle-aged man who had not ridden horses since his youth.

“I think we’re getting our message across,” Mr. Shawwa said later in an interview. “We began late, and Hamas got a head start, but the people are listening when we say: ‘We are the leaders; others just follow.’

“Only Fatah can deliver them a chance of living better, more safely and with continued worldwide support.”

At subsequent meetings stretching late into the evening, Mr. Shawwa made his points quietly, stressing a dramatic increase in electricity in an area where five years ago only half the homes had power. He conceded, though, that Fatah has little else to show after a decade of administering the territory.

He and other candidates were forced to sit in stony silence when one meeting was virtually commandeered by groups of gunmen and youths supporting a faction of Fatah’s armed wing.

To chanting, slogan-yelling and intermittent gunfire, a leather-jacketed 28-year-old named Ahmed Abu Showka recited the names of a long list of “martyrs” who died attacking Israelis.

“And Wafa Idris,” yelled the crowd, referring to Fatah’s first female suicide bomber.

“We have more given martyrs than Hamas,” Mr. Showka bellowed.

The slogans and the chanting were just as fiery at a highly disciplined Hamas rally across town. But there were no gunmen and no gunfire.

With well over 10,000 supporters in attendance, the message was clear: On polling day, it is numbers that will count, not the noise.

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