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The latest foreigner kidnapped and released in Gaza (as of yesterday morning) is a young Italian. At a news conference after his release, he said the kidnapping does not change his opposition to the Israeli occupation. But it is not his opinion that matters here, but rather the message delivered by the kidnappings or the pictures of hundreds of armed men running amok through the streets.

Something of that message could be learned randomly yesterday by clicking through the various TV stations. The latest victim of a gang war appears on an American TV cop show, and someone says, "It looks more and more like Gaza." It is not the Israeli occupation that has lasted nearly 40 years, nor the siege and the drastic restrictions on movement since 1991 which are responsible for the social and economic deterioration and the disconnection from the world; it is not the water quotas that Israel imposes, in effect, making the water undrinkable, nor is it five years of Israeli bombing. That's not what the world knows about Gaza.

But forget the world for a moment. The kidnappings and the rioting by the armed men, which disrupt even further the lives of the occupation-dependent Gazans, send the Palestinians a clear message about the Fatah movement and the Palestinian Authority. The armed men and the kidnappers are almost always connected to Fatah or "security apparatus." And the PA is not prosecuting the kidnappers and rioters, even though it knows precisely who they are. In the rioting and the frequent takeovers of public buildings, they turn their people into constant hostages of the threat of chaos, and the ransoms they usually demand include salaries, jobs, higher ranks, or the release from prisons for their relatives suspected of crimes.

Just the day before yesterday in Khan Yunis, according to a report by the independent Palestinian news agency Maanan, civilians did what the security apparatus has not managed to do: They prevented kidnappers from grabbing two Japanese citizens. Many Palestinians suspect that kidnappers are sent by someone senior in Fatah, whether as pressure on another senior official or a desire to appear afterward as a savior who solved the problem that he created in the first place - or, as Hamas suspects, to torpedo the elections.

The shrieking noise of the armed Fatah men drowns out the sounds of protest in Palestinian society: members of the "Independent Worker's Committees," who demonstrated this week in Gaza and who for years have been presenting reasonable demands, like tuition exemption for the children of workers and unemployed, and erasing their electrical debts; and the health workers who have been on strike for two days with the demand to raise their salaries and limit the amount of time they work.

The noise created by Fatah also swallows up any contextual regard for the "routine" of the Israeli occupation. Just last Monday, thousands of people were delayed between mobile and stationary Israeli checkpoints; IDF bulldozers uprooted olive trees in south Hebron; large numbers of troops entered Nablus; the police put an end to a Fatah political rally in Jerusalem. And dozens of places in the West Bank are earmarked for expropriation - for example, for the establishment of a national park alongside the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the expense of village lands from Issawiya and A Tur.

Beneath the patriotic talk - which says that if Israel prevents elections in Jerusalem or if it continues to shell northern Gaza, the elections cannot be held - the real worry is that the united list Fatah is presenting to the electorate is not so attractive, and that it will drive away potential Fatah voters.

Fatah's traditions of tribalism and localism are coming forcefully to expression: in the West Bank they are bitter that Gaza is better represented on the list; in Jenin, they are bitter that the representatives from Bethlehem are ranked higher. In Jenin's refugee camp there are complaints that a rival candidate of the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has a better chance to enter the legislative council. And despite all the talk of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, the Fatah was unable to find a single well-known Jerusalemite who is attractive and popular to be included on the list.

The armed Fatah men, like the officials who provide "national" reasons for postponing the elections, use the term "liberation" in vain. Here is an opportunity for a non-violent, civilian and popular protest in Jerusalem, as proposed by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Independent Palestine list: Find methods that will challenge the Israeli prohibitions, and the world will get the message that Israel is sabotaging Palestinian democracy.

The continuing occupation doesn't prevent the PA from making deals that benefit cronies and the occupation, like the hothouses in Gaza and the industrial zones near the wall. The ongoing occupation is not preventing the construction of new government buildings and the pleasures of power, as if the PA's cantonized territories were a state. The ongoing occupation does not prevent the PA's senior officials and Fatah's from continuing to use VIP passes to enjoy the freedom of movement that Israel takes away from the Palestinian people.

Three weeks before the elections, the Palestinian ruling party is doing all it can to make the public fed up.