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A gruff, pragmatic security chief swept Saturday a primary election of the ruling Fatah party in Hebron, strengthening the movement's young guard, prompting angry opponents to burn candidate lists and destroy the town's election headquarters.
The victory by Jibril Rajoub, the national security adviser, paved the way for Fatah's new younger generation to grab powerful spots as the movement faces a stiff challenge from the Hamas, which will be running for the first time in a January parliamentary election.
However, violence has tainted the Fatah primary, with some West Bank districts - and all of Gaza - canceling results. The internal fighting could weaken the movement in the January voting.
In Hebron, dozens of angry residents stormed Fatah's election headquarters after the results were announced, accusing Rajoub of rigging the voting. Some gunmen from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group linked to Fatah, fired in the air and stormed the building, forcing local election officials to flee.
The angry mob, supporters of Rajoub's opponent, Abu Ali Yatta, who is in an Israeli jail, burned lists of candidates and threw dozens of election documents from rooftops. Storming the headquarters, they destroyed computers and other office equipment. The frightened head of the election commission was whisked out of the building to safety.
Rajoub played down the violence, saying "this is nothing in comparison to the big achievement of making democracy work today."
But the Fatah infighting could weaken the movement and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who needs a decisive victory against Hamas to restart peace talks with Israel.
Much of the Fatah unrest stems from a dispute between the movement's young generation and its old guard of leaders. For years, the young blood tried to break into powerful positions but were blocked by Yasser Arafat, the Fatah founder who led the movement for 40 years.
After Arafat's death last year, Abbas called for primaries and blocked demands by party veterans to reserve slots for them on the parliamentary slate. Abbas retains the final say over who will represent the party in the Jan. 25 vote, but it will be hard for him to ignore the primary results.
In primary after primary, young Fatah activists trounced the old timers. In many cases, well-known veterans didn't even run, fearing defeat.
"Voting within Fatah revealed a deep desire for change. People show no trust in their historical leadership," said Palestinian political analyst Hani al-Masri.
Rajoub said the young generation's victory in the primary is encouraging.
"This is democracy and democracy in which members of the movement can choose their leaders and representatives. This way of operating will give Fatah viability and the ability to grow and develop," Rajoub told The Associated Press. "I would assume that those people who were chosen today would have a better chance to be chosen by the broader public."
Unlike the old guard, who spent decades living in exile, Rajoub was raised in the West Bank and spent 16 years in Israeli prisons for his Fatah activities.
Eventually, he was expelled from the West Bank and joined Arafat in Lebanon. When Arafat was permitted to return to establish the Palestinian Authority in 1994, Rajoub returned to the West Bank as head of the feared Preventive Security apparatus.
Rajoub arrested hundreds of Islamic terrorists and tipped Israel off to attack plots, winning the respect of Israel and the United States. He became a frequent guest in Israeli restaurants and cultivated good relations with Israeli security officials.
At the same time, Rajoub has occasionally crossed the Israelis. He is known as a tough negotiator, and despite his opposition to fighting that erupted in Sept. 2000, Israel still held him partly responsible for the violence.
His agency's forces were destroyed in the fighting, and in early 2001, three Israeli tanks shells hit his West Bank home, breaking windows and damaging his armored Mercedes. Israel said the attack was an accident.
Rajoub's strong performance in the Hebron vote is likely to ensure him a high spot on Fatah's list.
Another big winner was Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic party leader who is serving five consecutive life sentences in an Israeli prison for his involvement in the killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk. Barghouti won some 90 percent of the vote in his Ramallah district.
Israel has ruled out pardoning Barghouti, but Palestinian officials believe an election victory would step up pressure for his release.
In Ramallah, Hanna Nasser, head of the Palestinian election commission, announced on Saturday the opening of the registration period for candidates, which is to run through Dec. 14. He said 128 individuals and three lists of candidates have already registered.
In Nablus, Hamas registered a list of six candidates, including two popular sheiks.
Highlighting Fatah's troubles, the former mayor of Nablus, Ghassan Shaka, a Fatah member, registered as an independent. Disenchanted with Fatah after his brother was killed by masked gunmen in 2004, Shaka's registration as an independent pits him against his Fatah colleagues just as they are struggling against Hamas.
The head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmed Saadat, also registered for the election from his prison cell in Jericho, where he is serving a sentence for masterminding the killing of an Israeli Cabinet minister.