KHAN YOUNIS â€” Dirt-poor but proud, the people of this southern Gaza town are caught up in a fierce battle for their votes between the Palestinian ruling party Fateh and the Islamist movement Hamas.
Both groups contesting the January 25 polls are claiming credit for the pullout of Israeli troops and of the settlers who used to make life a nightmare for residents in this refugee town.
Up to last September, Khan Younis and its population of around 120,000 â€” many of them unemployed â€” abutted Gush Katif, one of the largest blocs of Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Today, the streets of the town are festooned with banners and flags, with every post and wall bearing posters and slogans vaunting the claimed achievements of Fateh or Hamas in forcing the Israeli withdrawal.
Hamas, taking part in Palestinian parliamentary elections for the first time, enjoys strong popular support in the town.
This is not only because some of its leaders, such as Abdel Aziz Rantissi â€” killed by Israel in 2004 â€” come from here but because the Islamist organisation has developed many charitable, religious and cultural groups.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ Fateh has brought one of its big guns out to compete â€” Mohammed Dahlan, also a native of the town, former minister of internal security and current civil affairs minister.
For one of his first open-air electoral meetings, Dahlan chose the symbolic area of Mawassi, whose residents were among those who suffered most from living cheek-by-jowl with the Jewish settlers.
The whole town suffered from frequent road closures by the Israeli military which cut its people off from the north, and undermined their struggling economy.
Seizure of farmland for alleged security reasons and constant checkpoint stops brought daily disruption to life in the town which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Palestinian Intifada.
It became increasingly run-down and crime-ridden, a haven for criminals and kidnappers.
Speaking from a platform, Dahlan told the crowd seated on plastic chairs: “Our joy in Fateh is double. We have freed Gaza and today we are celebrating the liberation of Mawassi.”
Celebratory gunshots greeted his words: “The liberation of the Gaza Strip is a step towards the creation of a [Palestinian] state.”
Hamas, which has called for a complete pullout by Israel from all the Palestinian territories, is also using the pullout in its campaign.
Photos of “martyrs,” bearing the movement’s green headband and gripping Kalashnikov rifles, are in evidence throughout the town.
“Our martyrs fell to free the holy land of Gaza,” blare the movement’s loudspeakers, mounted on a van crisscrossing the town.
Interspersed with the slogans comes a patriotic song to the glory of Rantissi and Ahmed Yassin, the founder of Hamas who was killed in an Israeli air strike in 2004.
The movement, however, is careful not to attack Fateh directly.
“The liberation of the Gaza Strip is due to the resistance of all the armed groups, said Yunis Al Astia, a candidate on the Hamas list.
“The people know what we have achieved at all levels of society,” he added.