Amid tight security and a sea of green and yellow flags, Palestinians cast ballots today in their first parliamentary election in a decade – a cliffhanger vote on whether to pursue peace or confrontation with Israel.
The ruling Fatah Party, tainted by corruption, asked Palestinians for another chance to pursue an elusive peace deal, while the Islamic militant Hamas promised clean government.
Both Hamas and Fatah were confident of victory, but pollsters said the race was too close to call.
Despite the bitter rivalry, both parties said they would consider a coalition if no clear victor emerges.
Polls opened at 7am (5am Irish Time) across the West Bank and Gaza, with some 1.3 million voters eligible to choose a 132-member parliament. Early today, long lines formed outside polling stations, giving the day a festive feel.
“These elections will determine the fate of the Palestinian people. The various Palestinian groups are participating for the first time. This is a positive thing,” said Mohammed Shaabein, a 71-year-old retiree in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.
Both parties were out in full force early today. At a polling station in the upscale Rimal neighbourhood of Gaza City, Hamas activists warmly greeted voters.
About a dozen male activists wearing Hamas’ trademark green hats and bandanas held computerised lists of voters, and assigned volunteer drivers to transport supporters to the station.
On the opposite side, five Hamas women – covered in full-length black robes and veils over their faces – handed out hats and cards with candidates’ names. Fatah activists were nowhere to be seen.
But in the nearby Beach refugee camp, both parties formed long reception lines to welcome the voters. Fatah activists, wearing the party’s black and white scarves decorated with Palestinian flags, mingled with voters, and the party transported voters in on buses.
Police later confiscated the lists of candidates’ names being distributed outside the polling station, saying activists were violating election law.
The camp was decorated in a sea of flags – green for Hamas, yellow for Fatah - and the excitement in the air was palpable. Some vehicles were decorated with carnations, as if a wedding were taking place.
“Historically Fatah has been the only group leading the Palestinian march,” said Wissam Abu Ajina, 28, who voted for the party in the northern Gaza village of Beit Lahiya. He said the party has “is able to correct the mistakes of the past.”
Turnout also was brisk in the West Bank. Voting in the towns of Qalqiliya, Tulkarem and Nablus was orderly, with the elderly voting first, and there was a heavy police presence.
Some 13,500 police officers deployed at 1,008 polling stations, taking up positions on rooftops and at entrances to enforce a weapons ban, the Interior Ministry said.
Rival militant groups pledged to keep their guns out of sight today, but several pre-election skirmishes and two killings, including the shooting of a Fatah politician in internal fighting yesterday, kept security forces on alert. Early today, Palestinian police arrested eight Fatah activists in connection with the killing, security officials said.
Pollsters predicted a turnout of at least 75%, but rain forecast for today could give Hamas, with its ideologically more committed electorate, an edge.
Nearly 20,000 local observers and 950 international monitors, led by former US President Jimmy Carter, were watching the vote. There were some allegations of fraud in the 1996 parliament election and the 2005 presidential election that brought Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to power, but international monitors said at the time the problems weren’t widespread.
“Both the Palestinian elections in the past have been very good. They have been honest, fair and free of violence and I hope and believe we will have the same thing today,” said Carter, who monitored voting in disputed east Jerusalem.
Today’s election marked the first time Palestinians have a clear choice between two political camps since Hamas boycotted the 1996 vote.
The Palestinians are at a crossroads, said pollster Nader Said of the West Bank’s Bir Zeit University. “For the Palestinians, the whole national agenda is on the table,” he said. “Do they want continuity or do they want change?”
Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri, running for election in Beit Lahiya, said he expects the group to win the biggest bloc of seats in parliament. Even if that occurs, Hamas has said it doesn’t want to rule alone.
“We did not come to replace anyone or squeeze out anyone. We came to start a new phase in political partnership and unity,” al-Masri said.
He said yesterday that Hamas leaders in Gaza and abroad have spoken with Abbas by phone in recent days about possible co-operation.
Hamas is expected to ask for service ministries – health, education and welfare – and to leave diplomacy, including contacts with Israel, to others. Hamas, which has long ruled out negotiations with Israel, has signalled some flexibility on the issue in recent days, but may not be ready yet for a dramatic shift of positions.
Fatah leaders have also predicted they’ll get more than half the parliament seats. But if forced to form a coalition, Fatah prefers to govern with smaller parties and would invite Hamas only if left with no other choice.
Israel has said it would not deal with Hamas politicians. Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said today he hoped Palestinians would not “choose again the extremists who have led them from tragedy to tragedy and to sorrowful lives.”