- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

‘Heightened alert’ for election

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian security forces voted in a parliamentary election yesterday, casting ballots early to free them for duty in the main balloting this week, the first to be contested by the militant group Hamas.

About 60,000 members of the security forces were eligible to vote from yesterday until tomorrow, in advance of election day on Wednesday when Palestinian civilians will vote in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Polling stations opened after many delays and fears that the election, the first in a decade, might again be delayed beyond the Jan. 25 date set late last year.

“This is a very important day for our people because all the parties are participating,” said Gaza police officer Hisham Saqala.

At the end of the first day’s voting, an election official said almost half the security officials had cast their ballots.

An Interior Ministry official said a “state of heightened alert” had been declared on security personnel for election day, when about 13,000 police officers will guard polling stations.

Two separate opinion polls showed Hamas close behind Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah faction. One poll showed Hamas taking 30.2 percent against 32.3 percent for Fatah, with the rest going to independents and smaller parties. Another gave Hamas 35 percent and Fatah 42 percent.

Hamas has grown in popularity as much for its anti-corruption credentials and charity network as for its suicide bombing campaign and vow to destroy Israel.

Fatah, struggling to cope with growing lawlessness particularly since Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip last year, has been weakened by infighting between an old guard, younger leaders and gunmen seeking greater power.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement to the Palestinian people that the elections gave them a chance to embark on a more optimistic future.

Israel and the United States oppose Hamas’ participation in the election, the second time that Palestinians have voted in a legislative election. The first was in 1996.

They have called for Mr. Abbas to disarm Hamas and other militant factions, a process that was meant to start under a U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.

Mr. Abbas hopes that by bringing Hamas into the political mainstream it might encourage the group to give up its weapons.

Israel has banned Hamas from campaigning in Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War and Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.

Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will meet senior security officials today to discuss the Palestinian election and Hamas’ expected strong showing, Israel Radio said. Mr. Olmert assumed power after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke on Jan. 4.

Hamas has largely followed a truce since early last year. However, Islamic Jihad, which is not running in the election, has stepped up attacks and carried out a suicide bombing that wounded 30 persons in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

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