RAMALLAH, West Bank – Israel slowly began easing travel restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Saturday, the eve of Palestinian presidential elections (search), though problems remained and new checkpoints sprouted in some areas, international election observers said.
Despite the difficulties, Palestinian election officials said they had completed preparations for Sunday's vote to choose a replacement for Yasser Arafat (search), who died in November, and ballot boxes had been distributed to more than 1,000 polling stations throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
Polls open at 7 a.m. Sunday and close 12 hours later, with 1.8 million Palestinians eligible to vote. Two polling companies are conducting exit polls whose results will be announced at 8 p.m. Sunday. Final results are expected in the night from Sunday to Monday.
Recent polls predicted PLO head Mahmoud Abbas (search) would overwhelmingly win the election for Palestinian Authority president.
Palestinian officials said the vote would be the first in a series of elections for new officials, and on Saturday caretaker Palestinian Authority President Rauhi Fattouh set July 17 as the date of long-delayed legislative elections. That vote had been expected to be held in May, but Fattouh said he changed the date so it would not interfere with school exams. The last legislative elections were held in 1996.
In an effort to facilitate a smooth presidential election Sunday, Israel officials promised to ease restrictions at roadblocks and checkpoints and to stay out of Palestinian population centers.
Election observers that toured the region Saturday said freedom of movement had improved at many major roadblocks, but there were some new checkpoints in the northern West Bank that made passage through that area difficult.
"We're finding today a very inconsistent story," said Les Campbell, spokesman for the team of observers from the National Democratic Institute, an American organization. "We're going to try and make some constructive suggestions (to Israel) and hope that things will be better tomorrow."
At a checkpoint in Gaza, hundreds of cars were waiting early Saturday, though traffic later eased. Palestinians reported that a 60-year-old taxi passenger was killed by army fire at the barrier Saturday. The army said soldiers fired at a gunman approaching on foot.
Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said the situation had not improved. "I urge the Israeli government to honor its commitment to lift the siege and restrictions. This is really threatening to undermine free and fair elections," he said.
Israeli officials said the military had only promised to ease, not lift, restrictions, and security remained the top priority, especially in light of the attack Friday outside the West Bank city of Nablus that killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three others.
Israel warned Palestinian leaders it would reconsider easing restrictions if militants exploited the situation.
Israel delivered the message through international observers headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard, according to Campbell. Carter, who was part of the NDI delegation, met Saturday with Abbas and visited Arafat's grave in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
In response to Friday's attack, the military imposed a curfew on four Palestinian villages near Nablus, preventing residents from leaving their homes. The army said Saturday it lifted the curfew on three of the villages and allowed election officials to send in several dozen ballot boxes.
A temporary checkpoint set up near the villages caused severe travel delays, said Adi Dagan, spokeswoman for an Israeli human rights group that monitors checkpoints. The army said the checkpoint was part of the search for the gunmen responsible for the attack.
Meanwhile, troops withdrew from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus.
Also Saturday, masked gunmen briefly kidnapped two Spanish journalists in the Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza. Ramon Lobo, a reporter for the newspaper El Pais, said he and a photographer, Carmen Secanella, were held for 90 minutes before being released unharmed.
Palestinian security officials said the kidnappers were from the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. An official with the militant group denounced the kidnapping, saying it was done for personal, not political reasons.