- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

JERICHO, West Bank — Thousands of Palestinians crammed polling stations in West Bank towns to vote in municipal elections, the first in nearly 30 years and the first time the ruling Fatah movement and the Islamic militant group Hamas competed for voter support.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who cast his ballot in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, praised the vote in 26 West Bank municipalities as “the first step toward the establishment of the Palestinian state.”

Elections were not being held in any of the major Palestinian cities or towns. Voting in an additional 600 towns and villages is expected to be held next year. A vote to replace the late Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority is set for January.

Long lines formed at polling stations in Jericho, with some voters complaining they had waited for more than four hours and still had not been able to cast ballots. Many, nonetheless, said they were eager to vote in their first local election since 1976.

“It doesn’t matter, one or two hours. I’m going to vote. I have been waiting for this for a long time,” said farmer Nabil Abu Kattan, 48.

During the past three decades, Palestinian communities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have been run by appointed mayors, who were chosen first by the Israeli military and then by the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Arafat had been reluctant to allow municipal elections, fearing that Hamas, the largest opposition group, would post a strong showing.

The date for yesterday’s elections was set before Mr. Arafat’s death last month. The 26 communities chosen for the first round are Fatah strongholds, said Ali Jarbawi, former head of the Central Elections Commission.

Hamas, pledged to Israel’s destruction, boycotted the 1996 general election, which was a byproduct of interim peace deals with Israel.

Hamas also is boycotting the Jan. 9 election, but plans to field candidates in local elections and an upcoming parliamentary vote.

About 150,000 Palestinians were eligible to vote in yesterday’s elections. About 800 candidates are vying for 360 municipal council positions. Some seats were reserved for women. Elections officials said they expect a turnout of more than 90 percent. Official results are expected tomorrow, with some unofficial results early today.

Also yesterday, Mr. Qureia said he was disappointed with British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s plan to hold a conference in London to help rehabilitate the Palestinian Authority and promote administrative, economic and security reform.

Mr. Blair visited Israel and the West Bank on Wednesday and described the conference as a “modest step” toward full-scale peace talks. The Palestinians were hoping for a wider conference to deal with the thorny issues that have scuttled previous peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We don’t need to go to a conference so we can be rehabilitated and trained how to negotiate. We are capable of doing all these things,” Mr. Qureia told his Cabinet yesterday.

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired 20 mortar shells at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, injuring an Israeli man. Most of the shells were fired from the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza, a day after the Israeli military raided the camp to stop the firing.

Later yesterday, two persons were killed in an explosion in a house in Khan Younis. Witnesses said the explosion occurred in the middle of the house, which belonged to a Hamas member, leading to speculation that militants inside may have accidentally detonated explosives they were preparing.

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