The Palestinian political scene was in turmoil after imprisoned uprising leader Marwan Barghouti, in a last minute reversal, entered the race for president to replace Yasser Arafat, challenging the establishment candidate.
Barghouti's sudden move on Wednesday, just hours before the midnight deadline for registering candidates for the Jan. 9 election, threatened to upset the so far smooth transfer of power from Arafat to his decades-long deputy, Mahmoud Abbas. It drew harsh denunciations from officials from Fatah, their party.
Barghouti was the West Bank leader of Fatah when he was captured by Israeli forces in April 2002. Barghouti, 45, a diminutive, fiery, charismatic figure, is a sharp contrast to the graying, quiet, shy Abbas, 69, the official Fatah candidate.
Late Wednesday, Barghouti's wife, Fadwa, registered her imprisoned husband as an independent to challenge Abbas and several others.
The response was quick and sharp. Tayeb Abdel Rahim, spokesman of the Fatah Central Committee -- which nominated Abbas last month -- denounced Barghouti and stopped just short of reading him out of the movement.
"We consider this as an irresponsible act." Abdel Rahim said of Barghouti's candidacy, adding that by running as an independent, "Barghouti has given up his Fatah affiliation."
Last week, Barghouti sent a message from his prison cell that he would not pursue the presidency for the sake of unity in the ruling Fatah movement. But Wednesday, he abruptly changed his mind.
Cheered on by supporters, Fadwa Barghouti dropped off his registration documents at the Palestinian election headquarters. "I officially registered Marwan," she told reporters.
Barghouti appeals to younger Palestinians who fought Israelis through two uprisings and fed up with the stodgy old guard leadership that returned from exile with Arafat in 1994. However, support of younger Palestinians for Barghouti was not automatic.
Late Wednesday, a militant leader who could be seen as a natural Barghouti backer came out for Abbas instead.
Zakaria Zubeidi, 29, West Bank leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a violent group linked to Fatah, said he would back the Fatah decision to nominate Abbas. "Barghouti ... should resign from Fatah," he told reporters, reflecting concern that the imprisoned Barghouti would not be able to wield influence.
The Al Aqsa leader in Gaza, Abu Mohammed, also pledged his support to Abbas.
Barghouti is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison, convicted of involvement in Palestinian attacks that killed five people. He denied the charges.
Israel has said it would not let Barghouti out of prison, even if he wins the election, but his backers hope for international pressure on Israel because of the race.
Further complicating the situation, Hamas said it will boycott the Jan. 9 election. The announcement could undercut the legitimacy of the election, though Hamas said it would honor the outcome. Hamas has tens of thousands of supporters and is particularly strong in the Gaza Strip.
Abbas, who formally launched his campaign Wednesday in Ramallah, brushed off Hamas' decision and signaled that he is ready to take action against the militants.
"Every nation has opposition groups, but there are also laws and institutions," he said. "I am committed to having one authority and only one army."