The results on Saturday showed al-Barghuthi emerged as Fatah's top choice for the parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 January.

Most of the other winners are part of al-Barghuthi's "young guard", including Qaddura Fares, Muhammed Yousuf, Muhammed Lutfi, Rabiha Diyab, Abdul Fattah Hamayel and Jihad Itmeila.

The results could make the corruption-tainted ruling party more attractive to voters in the January parliament elections but are seen as a blow to Fatah's "old guard", many of whom had returned from abroad with former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat after the conclusion of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

The al-Barghuthi-led young guard has long pushed for a greater say, especially after last year's death of Arafat, who founded Fatah and controlled it for four decades.

"The old guard has failed politically and administratively and in running their organisation in a democratic way. It's time to go home"

Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri

The Fatah veterans are widely considered corrupt, while al-Barghuthi's generation rose through the ranks during the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, from 1987 to 1993, but was kept out of leadership positions by the old-timers.

Arafat's successor, the reform-minded Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to hold internal elections for the list of parliament candidates and, under pressure from the young guard, blocked demands by Fatah old-timers to be assigned secure spots on the slate. However, Abbas will still have some say over who gets on the final list.

"The old guard has failed politically and administratively, and in running their organisation in a democratic way," said Palestinian analyst Hani al-Masri.  "It's time to go home."

Abbas successor

Al-Barghuthi, 46, is seen as a potential successor to Abbas even though he is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for involvement in attacks that killed five Israelis, a role he denies.

He supports peace negotiations with Israel and, before the outbreak of fighting in 2000, had close ties with Israeli leaders. However, he also advocates the use of force, including attacks on Israeli settlers and soldiers, to try to drive Israel out of the West Bank.

Al-Barghuthi's wife, Fadwa, said her husband's strong showing is a message to Israel that "Marwan is not a terrorist; he is a leader of his people and his people will not abandon him." 

Al-Barghuthi's wife, Fadwa, says
he is not a terrorist

Israeli officials said on Saturday that there was no chance al-Barghuthi would win early release.

"Al-Barghuthi was convicted in an Israeli court, a civilian court, I would stress, and sentenced to consecutive life sentences for his involvement in the murder of innocent civilians," said Mark Regev, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Yossi Beilin, a dovish Israeli party leader, said it was time for Israel to let al-Barghuthi go. "Today, he can be a moderating and positive influence," he said.

On Friday, internal elections were held in five of the largest West Bank districts: Ram Allah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and Tubas. Several more districts in the West Bank and Gaza are expected to hold elections soon.

The new parliament will have 132 seats, up from 88 in the current legislature. Polls indicate that Fatah will remain the strongest political force but that Hamas will come in a close second.

Fatah v Hamas

Hamas is campaigning on a platform of clean government and claims credit for Israel's Gaza Strip pullout this summer, saying its attacks pushed Israel out.

Veteran Fatah leader and former minister of local governance Jamal Shoubaki said Fatah was acquiring "renewed confidence" in the run-up to the polls.

Al-Barghuthi is serving five life
terms in an Israeli prison

"Fatah is the largest political movement in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the movement is well-prepared for the elections," Shoubaki told Aljazeera.net.

He pointed out that the latest opinion polls in the West Bank and Gaza Strip had given Fatah a comfortable lead over Hamas.

According to an opinion survey released on Wednesday by the Bait Shaur-based Centre of Public Opinion Studies, 37% of Palestinians said they supported Fatah, compared with 22.1% for Hamas.

But Hamas says it has support from more than 30% of the Palestinian people.

The poll also showed that al-Barghuthi enjoyed support of over 37% of Palestinians, greater than any other Fatah leader.

Khalid Amayreh contributed to this story from the West Bank