Jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti on Sunday called on Hamas and other Palestinian factions to join a broad national coalition after Wednesday's parliamentary election. He said Fatah and Hamas "are heading toward being partners in the field and in parliament."
Barghouti's remarks were made during an interview with Al-Jazeera in his prison cell, the first of its kind since his arrest in 2002. But as the interview was being aired, the Palestinian Authority ordered the closure of Hamas's new Aqsa TV station in the Gaza Strip.
The decision was strongly condemned by Hamas, which accused the PA leadership of seeking to prevent the movement from winning the vote.
The interview is seen by some Palestinians as an attempt on the part of Israel and the US to bolster Fatah's standing on the eve of the vote.
"Why are they suddenly allowing Marwan to appear on television?" asked a Hamas supporter here. "The Israelis and the Americans realize that Fatah is in a very bad situation and are trying to help it through various means."
An independent candidate who asked not to be named said there were "troubling signs" of the growing involvement of Israel, the US and some European countries in the election campaign. "Millions of dollars are being invested in certain candidates and lists," he charged. "Many Palestinians are wondering where all the money is coming from. The interview with Barghouti is the latest Israeli-American production to avoid a Hamas victory."
Nablus Prof. Abdel Sattar Kassem, a former candidate for chairman, went as far as accusing the Third Way list, which is headed by former finance minister Salaam Fayad, of receiving funds from the CIA.
Majida al-Batsh, a Jerusalem-based journalist with Agence France Press who is running in the election, said many candidates and lists were buying votes with money provided by foreign parties.
"Many of these candidates have suspicious agendas of international parties," she said. "In the past, Arab countries used to buy Palestinian parties and organizations. Now, Western countries are doing this."
On Sunday the streets of Ramallah and its twin city, al-Bireh, were full of supporters of various candidates and lists. Some 20 Fatah activists gathered near Manara Square in downtown Ramallah, chanting slogans and singing songs praising their party and Yasser Arafat. Palestinian police vehicles parked nearby were covered with Fatah and Arafat posters, a move that has drawn sharp criticism form human rights groups and some international monitors.
Several vans recruited by Hamas were driven through the streets flying the movement's green flags, playing Islamic songs and recordings of slain Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi saying force was the only language Jews understand.
As one of the vans approached the square, scores of young men and women greeted it with cheers and cries of "Allahu Akbar! [God is great]."
At the Hamas election headquarters in al-Bireh, Abdullah Ibrahim, a top activist, said he was confident that Hamas would win.
"The people want change and an end to the regime of corruption," he said. "Most people are very disappointed with Fatah and its leaders."
In the interview with Al-Jazeera, Barghouti urged Palestinians not to focus on whether Fatah defeats Hamas, and to participate in the election. "From my cell, I appeal to the great Palestinian people, young and old, to take part in these elections," he said.
The elections, he added, "should be seen as one of the essential means of achieving freedom, the return [home of Palestinian refugees] and independence. We should not think that the aim of January 25 is the seats. There is a goal we should be prepared for: a broad national reform government with the participation of all."
Barghouti, who is serving five life terms for his role in terror attacks on Israel, hailed the "brave and courageous decision by our brothers in Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other factions which agreed to join the Palestinian Authority by participating in the elections."
The Palestinian people need a national salvation government, a government of national unity, he said.
Barghouti said the results of the election would be respected "100 percent," even in the event of a victory for Hamas, which will become "an integral part of the Palestinian Authority."
Barghouti also called on Israel to end its military rule of the West Bank. "I urge the Israeli people to realize that there is no future for this occupation," he said. "This occupation is a burden. They should get rid of this burden."
PA Information Minister Nabil Shaath rejected Barghouti's call for including Hamas in a future coalition, saying he was confident that Fatah would win enough of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council to form a government on its own. Shaath said Fatah would then offer to share power with parties that accept the road map and recognize Israel.
"After the election, I think we will establish a government in coalition with the leftist and the independent lists," he said.
"With these people, we can agree on a joint program that includes negotiations with Israel, the implementation of the road map and a cease-fire. With Hamas, it will be very difficult to reach a joint program. We can't form a coalition with Hamas if it doesn't agree to this program."