NABLUS, West Bank — For a man under pressure, Alaa Sanakareh is a generous guy.
Sharp-boned and handsome in a haunted, gaunt way, he repeatedly extends his pack of Marlboros to a visitor, all the while chain-smoking and fielding cell phone calls.
In fact, he almost looks offended when the offers are repeatedly rejected.
But when I politely decline his invitation to spend the night with his band of gunmen and witness their deadly skirmishes with Israeli soldiers in the narrow alleys of the Balata refugee camp here, he seems less surprised. Especially after he advised me that if he died that night, I would die too.
Instead, I prefer to drink coffee on the sofa in his safe-house and hear his take on the the Palestinian election campaign, which culminates in balloting on Wednesday.
In the vote, the ruling Fatah Party, which was founded by the late Yassir Arafat and is now led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is facing a fierce challenge from Hamas, a more militant, Islam-based party that has achieved considerable popularity by promising to do away with the deep corruption that grew under Arafat's long reign.
Few Palestinians have as much riding on the result of the Palestinian elections as Sanakareh, the notorious local leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, an ultra-militant group usually associated with Fatah (though neither officially recognized nor openly backed by Fatah).
In effect, Sanakareh’s life is on the line. His fear, and the fear of the other gunmen who lounge around the room as we talk, is that the next Palestinian government — potentially a coalition between Fatah and Hamas — will negotiate a deal with Israel that does not guarantee their safety.
"All I want is a normal life," said 27-year-old Sanakareh. "I want to finish high school, and then go to university, study political science, and above all, I want to get married."
A lot on the line
In a small way he's already started negotiating. He and his men co-signed a letter to President Abbas offering to lay down their guns and return to normal life on condition that Israel stopped trying to assassinate them. But Israel refused.
"Israel has the names of 400 Al-Aqsa brigades fighters and they said 350 can live but will kill fifty,” explained Sanakareh. “That includes me and my men."
Israel accuses him of organizing numerous terror attacks that have resulted in the deaths of dozens of Israelis.
So if Abbas can't protect you, I ask him, what about Hamas? Can they? What would you do if Hamas wins power? Polls show that Hamas, fighting elections for the first time, could win between 30 to 40 percent of the vote, giving them a chance to take part in a coalition government with Abbas' ruling Fatah Party.
The men around Sanakareh become agitated. First they give the party line. "If we lose power then we will be in the opposition. This is democratic elections. We will obey the results."
But this reasonableness doesn't last long. "But anyway," they continue, "it won't happen. Hamas won't win one seat, not one."
"In Nablus?" I ask, "Or in all of Palestine?" "Everywhere," they insist, "Hamas will be defeated."
A wake-up call
But then they continue, and get to what is at the heart of these elections: Corruption.
"This election will bring reform and change, yes, but not Hamas. Fatah will change things. Fatah made many mistakes, corruption, many other bad things. But now we are waking up,” said Sanakareh. “After these elections Fatah will have a sixth conference, immediately. We will get rid of all the old leaders of Fatah and create a new leadership which will be clean and not corrupt."
And that, to me, is the untold story. These elections are truly a wake-up call.
The vast majority of Palestinians, according to all the polls, really do not want a Hamas that will bring Palestine towards an Islamic state. Their vote for Hamas is actually a vote to get Fatah to clean up its act.
And this clear fact is recognized by the younger elements among the Fatah leadership — as well as the fighters and their supporters — who realize the only way to hang on to power in the long term is to dump the corrupt old guard and take control of their own future.
This has been obvious for years. But Fatah — and particularly Abbas — was unable to push aside the old guard installed by Arafat, who stayed in power in part by encouraging corruption and a divide-and-rule culture in the party.
Now or never at the ballot box
Now, through democratic elections, Hamas has shown Fatah that if they don't make the changes that are screaming out to be made, they will lose power altogether.
And young militants like Sanakareh hold the key to the future — their own and that of their fledgling state.
They know that they need to remove the old guard and hand power to younger leaders who can promise them a new life. Not in an Islamic state, but a secular, democratic one.
It's a dangerous process and many analysts forecast much violence still to come, between Fatah and Hamas, as well as with Israel.
But ultimately a reformed and younger Fatah will be the most positive outcome of these Palestinian elections, regardless of the power balance between Hamas and Fatah.
Martin Fletcher is the NBC News Tel Aviv Bureau Chief and lead correspondent.