Deadly violence and kidnappings of foreigners, blamed on militants loyal to Fatah, have created a climate of insecurity in the Gaza Strip that Fatah opponents and analysts argue is intended to create a reason for postponing the vote if the party, which has dominated government for a long time, looks like losing.

Hamas, the Islamist group, is taking part for the first time in what are only the second Palestinian parliamentary elections and is expected to give Fatah a run for its money.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has said that the elections will go ahead as planned after he received US assurances that Israel would allow voting in occupied and annexed east Jerusalem.

Lack of clarity

But Washington has since said it has no position on the issue and Israel says a decision will be made only after a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

"They commit these acts because they have found no other solution"
'Abu Qusay', Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades

Consequently the Palestinian deputy prime minister and Fatah's campaign manager, Nabil Shaath, has said that no definitive decision on the elections will be made until 24 January, the day before polling day.

Jihad Hamad, a political scientist at Gaza University, said the Fatah leadership had made a serious error in not purging elements within the party that had no interest in a strong state that might deprive them of their longstanding privileges and powers of patronage.

"If Fatah sees that it is losing power, it won't accept it and will try to disrupt the electoral process," he said.

Hani Habib, another political analyst, said "Fatah officials want to maintain a chaotic situation" to serve their own interests. "The armed groups are resorting to these tactics as a form of protest," he said. "Before they were fighting against Israel but since the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, their militants are out of work and the Palestinian Authority has failed to resolve this growing problem."

Militants opposed to Fatah said the problem was that the movement's leaders had established armed offshoots during the five-year uprising that lacked any real programme or discipline.

Last resort

A commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the largest Fatah offshoot, condemned the kidnappings as the actions of renegades, but expressed sympathy for their plight amid the chronic unemployment plaguing the territory and the Palestinian leadership's inability to offer them an alternative role.

The commander, giving his name as Abu Qusay, said: "The kidnappers carry out their actions on their own behalf. They are facing poverty and are asking for a better life. They commit these acts because they've found no other solution."

Hamas, under Mahmoud Zahar,
are set to make gains in Gaza

In a message from his prison cell in Israel on Wednesday, Marwan Barghuti, the intifada leader who is heading the Fatah list into the elections despite having been sentenced to five life terms, hit out at the actions of the militants and called for a massive turnout for the vote.

But a spokesman for Hamas, Sami Abu Zuhra, was in no doubt that the violence was a deliberate ploy to force the postponement of the vote and said his movement would not accept it.

"The motives behind the security chaos are known - the goal is to block the elections on the pretext that the security conditions are unacceptable," he said.