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"Fatah is like the Zionist Movement," someone explained yesterday in Gaza. "It needs a common enemy and then it unites against it. That enemy is Mustafa Barghouti."

Rumors about Barghouti - and those who support and oppose him - were flying fast and furious yesterday, ahead of the election in the Palestinian Authority.

"Damascus has ordered the Palestinian opposition groups to support Mustafa Barghouti and therefore the Popular Front has decided to support him," according to one of the rumors. "Syria wants Abu Mazen to get as few votes as possible."

However, the whisperings are completely untrue, say Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine sources and experts in Palestinian-Syrian ties.

Dr. Haider Abdel Shafi has thrown his support to Barghouti. But the rumor from Hebron is that he then retracted it. The 85-year-old doctor, who has represented the Palestinian people since 1948 and was one of Yasser Arafat's harshest critics, denied the retraction rumor in an interview with Al Jazeera. A check revealed that two people connected to Fatah were behind the rumor.

But there is almost no doubt that Fatah is not the organization behind a leaflet containing a series of provocative questions to Barghouti hinting that he is being backed by American officials. The People's Party - formerly the Communist Party, of which Barghouti was once a leader until he left it to go independent - is said to be behind the leaflet.

Economist Salah Abdel Shafi, Haider's son, is voting for Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). "Abu Mazen needs a strong, stable majority so the day after the elections he can work on internal reforms," he said.

"Abu Mazen is honest," said Abdel Shafi. "Since he talked straight against the armed intifada during his campaign, no one can say afterward that he cheated them."

According to Adi al-Hindi, Barghouti's campaign manager, voting for Barghouti is important for three reasons: to present a new way of thinking and action; to increase the size of the camp that supports a two-state solution, but not Abu Mazen's version of partial steps like the Oslo Accord and the road map; and to strengthen the struggle against corruption in the PA. "Abu Mazen will have to take this camp into consideration," he said.

Al-Hindi has pledged that, as the law requires, the full list of funding for Barghouti's election campaign will be disclosed. Most of the funding, he said, comes from Palestinian tycoons and businessmen here and abroad.

In Hamas, debate is less fierce. Hamas has called for a boycott of the vote. However, according to Hamas activists, it is not an outright prohibition. What worries the left - that Barghouti has begun to attend the mosque and pepper his statements with quotes from religious sources - strikes a chord with Hamas activists. "The Palestinian left put itself beyond the pale when it denied the place of religion in our lives. Barghouti shows he learns from mistakes," said one Hamas activist, although he plans on casting a blank ballot. On the other hand, a female resident of the Shati refugee camp in Gaza said she will vote for Barghouti because "he protects the rights of women."