Palestinians Go to Polls in Local Elections

Palestinians voted for local governments in dozens of towns and villages across the West Bank (search) and Gaza Strip (search) on Thursday in a contest that is expected to boost the Islamic militant group Hamas and could foreshadow results of parliamentary elections in July.

The ruling Fatah (search) party of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, plagued by allegations of corruption after 10 years in power, is increasingly concerned Hamas will rout it in local voting and in the national election.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search) recently proposed to Hamas to delay the parliament vote until the end of the year in exchange for bringing the opposition group into his Cabinet now, senior Hamas officials said Thursday. Hassan Yousef, a Hamas leader in the West Bank, said the group rejected the offer.

Thursday's vote is the third — and largest — round of municipal elections since December. Candidates from Hamas, Fatah and independent lists were competing for 906 local council seats in 84 communities, including the towns of Bethlehem and Qaliliya in the West Bank and Rafah in Gaza. Polls close noon EDT, with first results expected after 5 p.m. EDT.

By midday Thursday, 35 percent of voters had cast their ballots, election officials said, adding that they received no reports of major disruptions.

The municipal campaigns were largely waged over local issues, such as clean government and better services, and analysts say clan loyalties also influence voting. However, the election also comes at a time of growing disappointment with Abbas; his main achievement — a truce with Israel — appears to be coming apart and he has little else to present to voters.

Two Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire on Wednesday in one of the deadliest incidents since the truce was declared in February, and Israel announced it is freezing the handover of West Bank towns until Palestinian police begin disarming militants in areas under their control.

Also Thursday, the Israeli military closed the Karni cargo crossing between Israel and Gaza for about two hours after receiving warnings that Palestinian militants were planning an attack.

The municipal vote is about better services, "but on the other hand, it's also Hamas competing against Fatah," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a former local affairs minister.

In the Gaza refugee camp of Rafah, hardest-hit in Israeli-Palestinian fighting, Salma Abu Gazar, 51, said she voted for Hamas because she wants change. "We want clean streets and new projects, like sewage treatment, and our destroyed homes to be rebuilt. I believe that Fatah will not do anything. They will monopolize everything like they have done before," she said.

Her cousin, 42-year-old Rabiha, whose house was demolished by Israeli troops during the fighting, said she is still putting her faith in Fatah. "I believe that only the people who are in power, like Fatah, can build me a new house," she said.

Hamas trounced Fatah in voting in 10 towns in Gaza in January and grabbed ground in two dozen West Bank races a month earlier.

Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University and a former head of the election commission, said the election should not be seen strictly as a referendum on Abbas. He said family loyalties and other local factors are equally important factors.

The military intelligence chief, Zeevi-Farkash, told Israel Radio on Thursday that Abbas has completed collecting weapons from wanted men in Jericho and is working to collect weapons in Tulkarem.

He estimated Abbas wouldn't go head-to-head with Hamas now in an effort to rein in militants, but would continue trying to work through discourse. Abbas, he said, is managing to maintain a fragile calm.

A senior security commander in Tulkarem, speaking on condition of anonymity, said all of the militants in the town agreed to surrender their weapons within 48 hours in exchange for jobs in the Palestinian police force or other government agencies.

But in a conflicting message from Gaza, the new Palestinian security chief in charge of reining in militants said he has no plans to disarm them.

"The Palestinian factions know that we have no plan to disarm the resistance and to take their weapons," Brig. Gen. Rashid Abu Shbak told reporters. "We are not going to have any confrontation with anyone."