RAMALLAH - About 150 Fatah supporters marched in the center of this city on Thursday to express support for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in his confrontation with Hamas.
Carrying pictures of Abbas and his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, the demonstrators shouted slogans against Hamas and its leaders, specifically Damascus-based Khaled Mashaal and Ismail Haniyeh, one of two competing PA prime ministers.
"Mashaal, Haniyeh, go away from the Gaza Strip," they chanted. "The Hamas leaders are clowns. Islam is not about slaughtering people. Await the response from [Fatah's] Aksa Martyrs Brigades."
The demonstration came a day after Abbas said Hamas had tried to assassinate him by detonating explosives under his car. It also came as Abbas's security forces and Fatah gunmen continued their crackdown on Hamas representatives and institutions in the West Bank.
Abbas's office released a videotape which it claimed showed Hamas militiamen preparing to plant an explosive charge in a tunnel in Gaza City as part of a plan to assassinate the PA leader.
But Thursday's midday march at Manarah Square in downtown Ramallah failed to attract large numbers of Palestinians. "What are they celebrating, their defeat in the Gaza Strip?" asked Hisham Atiyeh, a 29-year-old shopkeeper. "The people here don't like Fatah because they are corrupt and because they have many thugs on the street."
Atiyeh said he was "100 percent sure that if elections were held tomorrow morning in the West Bank, Hamas would win. I'm not a religious person, but I will certainly vote for Hamas, because I don't like what these Fatah guys are doing."
Asked if the resumed US and EU financial aid could boost Fatah's standing among West Bankers, he said: "Fatah does not need money and weapons. It needs reforms and change. Fatah must do something good to convince the Palestinians that they are not corrupt and bad. Otherwise, the people will never support them."
Ziad Abu Ein, a top Fatah official who led the march, said he agreed that his faction needed changes. "Surely Fatah will fail in the West Bank if its doesn't change," he said. "We need to see real reforms and an end to the era of corruption. I still believe that Fatah is very strong, especially in the West Bank."
Abu Ein, a representative of the young guard in Fatah, expressed hope that Abbas and the veteran Fatah leadership would accept demands to reform the faction and to bring in fresh blood.
Naim Toubassi, head of the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, said he was convinced that Fatah would succeed in asserting its power in the West Bank. "Look around you, do you see any Hamas people here?" he asked. "Hamas has disappeared in the West Bank."
Toubassi said that while Fatah was in need of reforms and changes, reports about corruption were "widely exaggerated." He blamed Hamas for trying to discredit Fatah by spreading rumors about rampant corruption in Fatah.
For Fatah to succeed in the West Bank, he said, the international community must lift financial sanctions and end its boycott of the PA. "The sanctions play into the hands of Hamas and the radicals," he said. "It's only a matter of time before Fatah regains its control over the Gaza Strip, because Hamas will fail.
"Hamas has nothing to offer the Palestinians other than an Islamic emirate."
No Fatah gunmen participated in the march and not a single shot was fired. Fatah officials here said Abbas and the Fatah leadership had issued firm instructions to keep the gunmen off the streets. "The Fatah leadership has decided to ban the presence of all militiamen on the streets of the West Bank," said one official. "Only members of the official Palestinians security forces will be allowed to patrol the streets."
Despite the ban, Fatah gunmen went on a rampage inside the offices of a Hamas-affiliated TV station in Nablus, destroying equipment and furniture, witnesses said.
Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip reacted with fury to Abbas's allegations that Hamas had planned to kill him, calling the PA chairman a "liar."
Hamas also warned against Abbas's attempt to cancel the role of the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Legislative Council.
Abbas hinted on Wednesday that he was considering replacing the PLC with the PLO central committee - a move that would strip the parliament of all its powers.
"Abbas is acting against the Palestinian law," said Ahmed Bahr, a top Hamas leader and deputy speaker of the PLC. "Abbas is actually staging a coup against the legitimate bodies of the Palestinian Authority. This is the end of the democratic system in Palestine."
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum strongly denied that his movement had planned to assassinate Abbas. He accused Abbas of lying to the Palestinians, adding that the booby-trapped underground tunnel that Abbas was talking about was intended to be used solely against the IDF.