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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 January, 2005, 12:30 GMT
On the campaign trail with Barghouti

By Martin Asser
BBC News in the West Bank

As the Palestinian Authority election campaign draws to a close, no candidate can have campaigned harder - or made greater impact - than the independent civil society activist Mustafa Barghouti.

Mustafa Barghouti campaigning in the West Bank
Mr Barghouti has pledged to organise a major peace summit if he wins
He has emerged from a pack of six as the most notable challenger to Mahmoud Abbas, and claims, in some districts, to have even edged ahead of the PLO chairman and Fatah candidate.

"I feel proud to be the leader of a democratic trend doing something that hasn't been done for 1,000 years here in the Arab world, challenging the existing authority in free elections," he told a press conference at the beginning of the last day of campaigning.

Among his other feats, he counts coalition-building between his Palestinian National Accord movement and radical parties such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and speaking for the "silent majority" of Palestinians he says are not represented by the existing Arafat-Abbas regime or the Islamists of Hamas.

He pledges to end corruption, use PA resources more effectively and deal with Israel not through faltering interim agreements but with a major international peace effort like the Madrid summit of 1991.

A large crowd of journalists has gathered at an East Jerusalem hotel to hear him, and there is some excitement because a rumour is going round he will go to the al-Aqsa mosque later for Friday prayers.

Fast movers

I had arranged with his campaign headquarters to spend the whole day with Mr Barghouti, to get a candidate's-eye view of this election.

So, after the press conference, I was bundled into a four-wheel drive for the next appointment.

We sped along the steep, winding streets at breakneck speed to another hotel on the Mount of Olives for a meeting with former US President Jimmy Carter, who is here to monitor the elections.

"Dr Mustafa's chauffeurs are all ambulance drivers," explains Pamela Olson, the candidate's foreign press liaison officer, as we are thrown from side to side in the back of the vehicle.

Mustafa Barghouti is arrested by Israeli authorities
Israel said Mr Barghouti had violated an agreement not to visit the al-Aqsa mosque

The meeting with Mr Carter takes about 15 minutes - time for the press corps to catch up with us.

When the candidate emerges, he claps his hands together and says: "Right, we are going to the mosque."

It is meant to be the photo-opportunity highlight of the day - but the Israeli security services have other ideas.

As Mr Barghouti's car reached an Israeli police barrier about 200m from al-Aqsa, he was stopped by the officers on duty.

Within moments an unmarked pick-up truck carrying plain-clothes officers arrived and, after a short exchange of words, Mr Barghouti was arrested.

Permission slip

Although Sunday's election includes East Jerusalem, Israel - which has occupied the east half of city since 1967 and claims it all as its exclusive capital - has set tough restrictions on Palestinian election activity there.

Palestinian boys in Hebron sit beneath posters of Mustafa Barghouti
Palestinians certainly make a tough audience

Candidates must take permission from the Israeli authorities to campaign there. Only a few electors are being allowed to cast "absentee" ballots at post offices and the rest must vote outside Jerusalem's boundaries.

The last time Mr Barghouti came here to campaign he was arrested for not having permission.

This time permission had been granted - until 1400 that day - but it seems that going to al-Aqsa mosque was not part of the deal.

So the campaign team relocates to outside the Russian Compound police station, where Mr Barghouti was taken last time.

Eventually, news came from his lawyers that the candidate was not being brought to the Russian Compound, but was being expelled from Jerusalem to the West Bank instead.

Tough audience

In truth, Mr Barghouti's programme was not unduly affected by the detention, because his next engagement was not scheduled until 1330.

I could be wrong, but that - rather conveniently - left ample time for his headline-grabbing brush with the Israelis before moving on to meet the voters.

Reunited with his team at the Dahiya checkpoint north of Jerusalem, the Barghouti bandwagon heads for Abu Dis - a Palestinian residential area East of Jerusalem through which the West Bank barrier runs - and then south to villages around Hebron.

It's the first chance I get to see him interact with the voting public, or at least the male voting public, as there is hardly a female face here except for foreign election observers and campaign workers.

Palestinians certainly make a tough audience. These are people who have heard so many promises from politicians and yet their lives under military occupation seem to get inexorably worse.

But some of the candidate's message gets through at the Abu Dis meeting - despite the sporadic chanting and flag-waving displays from a group of young PFLP supporters in the hall.

"Nothing has changed for the last 10 years under our leadership, so we need new leaders... like Mustafa Barghouti," says Adel Jaffal in Abu Dis.

"He has a reasonable programme and he has a good chance of being able to implement it."

Rival chanting

On to Beit Ummar and Sureef - large but out-of-the-way agricultural communities that no candidate has visited yet in five weeks of campaigning.

Mustafa Barghouti is interviewed by a television crew
Mr Barghouti's day of campaigning ended with media interviews
There is a party atmosphere. Dozens of young boys pushing and shoving. Enthusiastic clapping at Mr Barghouti's policies.

It's after 1700 and getting dark when we leave. A group of Fatah supporters arrive and chant Mr Abbas's nom de guerre, "Abu Ma-zen, Abu Ma-zen", as we set off.

At his last stop in Hebron, Mr Barghouti meets the widow of Marwan Zalloum, a well-known Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades commander killed by the Israelis there, to whom he promises support for her campaign to get state pensions for families such as hers.

Nearly 12 hours after his first press conference of the day, the candidate rounds off with two final TV interviews in Ramallah's Muqata compound - with the BBC and CNN - before returning to campaign HQ.

Before getting in the car, he says a prayer at the grave of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whose death on 11 November triggered these elections to find a replacement.

Given the decades-old dominance of the Fatah in Palestinian politics, very few people give Mr Barghouti a chance of succeeding Arafat.

But, as he said several times on the campaign trail, he feels he has won either way.

Either he is elected president of the Palestinian Authority, Mr Barghouti says, or he emerges the leader of a vibrant and confident opposition.

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