In the world of Palestinian politics, incarceration in an Israeli jail has always been a necessary rite of passage for any aspiring leader. This qualification has far more meaning than anything a mere university could offer. Until a few years ago, the name Marwan Barghouti hardly meant anything to the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For those who had heard of him, he was just another ambitious Fatah activist from a tiny village near Ramallah. But ever since he was detained more than three years ago by the IDF, and later sentenced by the Tel Aviv District Court to five life terms for his role in terrorism, Barghouti has become one of the Palestinians' most prominent leaders and symbols. No election adviser could have helped the 45-year-old Barghouti gain fame and popularity the way sitting in Israeli prison has. Since his detention, public opinion polls conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have placed Barghouti at the top of the list of popular Palestinian leaders who stand a good chance of winning any elections. Last month, he picked the first fruits of his ordeal by scoring the largest number of votes in Fatah's primary elections in the Ramallah area. This week, Barghouti went a step further by forming a new party that will run in next month's parliamentary election - a move that is seen as a direct challenge to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and veteran Fatah leaders who, unlike Barghouti, had spent most of their lives moving from one Arab capital to another. Abbas and his cohorts are viewed by most Palestinians as representatives of the "old guard" - a reference to all those who had been appointed by Yasser Arafat over the past four decades. Barghouti's list, called al-Mustaqbal [the future], consists mostly of "young guard" activists who also owe their glory to Israel for having imprisoned them for different periods. Jibril Rajoub, for instance, spent 17 years in prison before he was released in 1985. Muhammad Dahlan, Samir Mashharawi, Kadoura Fares and others were more fortunate, having spent fewer years behind bars. These "insiders" [a term used to describe grassroots activists who have always been living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip] have always considered themselves to be the authentic voices and leaders of the Palestinians. As for the "outsiders" who returned with Arafat after the signing of the Oslo Accords, they continue to be regarded as old timers who are responsible for leading the Palestinians from one disaster to another. To the disadvantage of the "outsiders," most of them never spent a day in Israeli jail. While Rajoub, Dahlan and the rest of the young activists were languishing in prison, Arafat's cronies were busy touring the world, reserving first-class seats on international flights and checking into five-star hotels. THE OLD-GUARD leaders were always able to hide behind Arafat's wide shoulders. Arafat, who ran the PLO and the PA as a private enterprise, was always quick to defend [and reward] his loyalists, providing them with immunity against charges of financial corruption and abuse of power. As long as Arafat was around, there was little the young-guard operatives could do. However, Arafat's death more than a year ago has prompted Barghouti and his colleagues to resume their battle against the old and corrupt leadership of the ruling party. In the beginning, Abbas appeared to show some sympathy for the demands and aspirations of the young leaders. He accepted their demand to hold primary elections for Fatah to allow the party's members to choose their own candidates for the parliamentary vote. But when he saw that Barghouti and the young guard had made a strong showing in the primary elections, Abbas clearly panicked, realizing that the young guard was on its way to replacing the regime of the "Abus" [a reference to nicknames used by many of Arafat's former cronies]. In a move that has been widely condemned as undemocratic, Abbas and the veteran Fatah leadership decided to ignore the results of the primary election. Instead, they drew up a list of their own candidates, triggering fierce opposition by Barghouti and his followers. This week, Fatah militiamen affiliated with the young guard were instructed to storm Palestinian election offices and destroy computers and files in an attempt to disrupt the electoral process. The attacks signal the beginning of what many Palestinians see as an "intifada" against the old guard of Fatah. "We want to remove these statues," declared a Fatah activist, referring to Arafat's former cronies. "This is an uprising against the corrupt regime." Evidence of Abbas's predicament was provided by his somewhat pathetic decision on Wednesday to appoint Barghouti as the head of his preferred list of candidates for the parliamentary elections. This means that Fatah will go to the election with two lists - both of which are headed by Barghouti. But the difference between the two lists is that one of them was created by Barghouti while the second was set up [without Barghouti's approval] at the last minute to avoid a split in Fatah. Confused voters will now have to choose between two Marwan Barghoutis - one backed by the old guard and another that consists of graduates of Israeli jails. The violent power struggle in Fatah is most likely to reflect negatively on the party's performance in the parliamentary election. Many Palestinians have long been asking themselves whether a deeply divided party with so many armed militias and incompetent leaders could continue to run their affairs. Today it's clear that this infighting is less about ideology than it is about power and money. The Fatah rebels don't have a different political agenda from that of the old guard; their main battle is to secure a larger say in decision-making. Therefore, as far as Israel is concerned, no dramatic changes are to be expected when Barghouti and his friends - and the day is drawing closer - succeed in getting rid of all the "Abus" sitting in Ramallah and Gaza City.