Heavy Turnout In Palestinian Election - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

1/25/06-GAZA CITY

Heavy Turnout In Palestinian Election

Voting officials reported heavy turnout Wednesday after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians cast ballots in their first parliamentary elections in a decade.

Shortly after polls closed in Gaza and the West Bank, turnout in the territories was estimated at 72.9 percent of more than a million registered voters, election officials said.

There were no early turnout estimates in East Jerusalem, where voting was extended for two hours, until 9 p.m. (2 p.m. ET).

Observers said the election could be pivotal in the push for Palestinian statehood. Members of the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas were expected to win places in the 132-seat parliament, or Palestinian Legislative Council.

Earlier, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar, whose party was expected to make a strong showing, left open the possibility of a coalition government with ruling Fatah and conditional negotiations with Israel.

Zahar said he would be open to negotiations if Israel has something to offer and participates with good will and respect for the rights of Palestinians.

"We are not going to meet them just for meeting," Zahar told reporters after casting his ballot. Previously, he said, many meetings "ended with nothing."

Asked if Hamas would ever recognize Israel, Zahar replied: "Never."

If elected, Zahar said his goals include rebuilding the Palestinian infrastructure and what he said has been destroyed by Israeli occupation and corruption.

Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group that has called for the destruction of Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. State Department, is expected to get a third of the legislative council seats.

On the eve of the election, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged Palestinians to turn out for the vote. "Voting is the right of every citizen," Abbas said. "It's a national obligation because the results of the election should reflect a truthful expression of all Palestinians."

An array of militant groups said they would disarm during the voting.

At issue in the balloting is the battle between the ruling Fatah Party and Hamas, which boycotted the previous parliamentary election in 1996. Polling in the final days before the election have showed Hamas gaining more than a third of seats in parliament.

Hamas has capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction with what is seen as corruption within the Palestinian Authority and Fatah and a perceived inability by the authority to manage Palestinian affairs.

Zahar said Wednesday that Hamas will consider forming a coalition with anyone in the expected council.

'It's going to be a tight race'

Samar Assad, the executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Center, said she believes Fatah needs to get more than 55 percent of the vote to "reclaim its credibility and its historic mandate."

"It does not look like it's going to get that," she said. "Either way, this is a win-win situation for the Palestinian people, because all groups running in this election ... will really have to work hard to gain the trust and get the legitimacy from the Palestinian people."

She added: "It's going to be a tight race between Fatah and Hamas."

Acting Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert had a message Tuesday for Palestinians just hours before the start of the election, issuing a thinly veiled plea that they not elect Hamas to run the next Palestinian government.

"Do not choose extremists who have led them from tragedy to tragedy and to misery," he said. (Full story)

He said the elections are a historic opportunity for Palestinians to have an "independent Palestinian state in their own territory."

Saying Palestinians rejected a 1947 offer to set up their own state, he said, "History has provided them another opportunity to establish an independent state. The actualization of this opportunity involves relinquishing some of their national dreams, just as we have relinquished some of our national dreams."

For his part, Zahar rejected Olmert's comments. "He is determining the borders of the Palestinian land, and this is unacceptable," he said.

Abbas is hoping Hamas will be tamed by mainstream politics, that the day-to-day duties of government -- such as running schools, hospitals and garbage collection -- will lead to pragmatic change within the group.

"Hamas must understand these elections are the way to one authority, one legal gun and the rule of law," said Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator.

Israeli skeptics

Israelis, however, remain skeptical of that possibility.

"I think that Israel is very concerned that Hamas, once in power, begins to feed itself up and form the basis for a militant Islamic threat against Israel that we have never known before," said Dore Gold, with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

"It simply doesn't work when you have a committed ideological movement like Hamas, which in addition has religious motivation. They can't be tamed by garbage collection."

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