Palestinians Vote in Key Gaza Strip Municipal Poll (REUTERS) By Nidal al-Mughrabi BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip 01/27/05 03:34 AM ET)
Reuters News Service
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BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (Reuters) - Palestinians voted on Thursday in
the first municipal elections in the Gaza Strip, a test of strength
between new President Mahmoud Abbas and the militant Hamas group.
Thousands turned out in the early hours of the poll to cast their
ballots for candidates vying for 118 seats in 10 municipal councils
throughout the territory, where Israeli-Palestinian violence has
dropped sharply over the past week.
Abbas has been trying to coax a cease-fire from militants
spearheading a 4-year-old revolt and prevent a chaotic power vacuum
in Gaza when Israeli troops and settlers withdraw this year under
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s "disengagement plan."
An end to bloodshed is also key to reviving a U.S.-backed peace road
map whose final stage is the creation of a Palestinian state
alongside a secure Israel.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said a truce in itself,
without any move by Abbas to disarm militant groups as stipulated by
the peace plan, was no solution.
"A cease-fire is a ticking bomb that will explode in our faces.
Therefore a cease-fire cannot be a long-term goal -- certainly not
when (militant factions) are preserving their infrastructures," he
told Army Radio.
U.S. envoy William Burns was due to hold talks later in the day with
Abbas and Sharon to start exploring ways of moving forward along a
path of reciprocal confidence-building steps charted by the violence-
stalled peace blueprint.
Preparing the ground for an as yet unscheduled Abbas-Sharon summit,
Israel and the Palestinians resumed high-level diplomatic contacts on
Wednesday after a two-year break.
"The summit may take place around Feb. 8 if preparations are
completed," a Palestinian official said.
Israel boycotted Abbas´s predecessor Yasser Arafat in the final years
before his death, branding him an "arch-terrorist," which he denied.
But it has welcomed Abbas´s rise on a pledge of quiet to enable road
Shalom, speaking from Washington after meeting newly confirmed
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said it was too early to talk
about resuming talks on a final peace treaty.
"She intends to be very active," Shalom said about Rice´s future role
in trying to achieve a settlement.
"I said that taking a step toward a permanent status agreement would
be doomed to fail. I think that this was done in the past and did not
succeed, and may have even brought about (the Palestinian uprising),"
"There is a deep lack of trust between the sides, and thus this trust
has to be rebuilt, step by step."
Across the Gaza Strip, Palestinians began forming lines at polling
stations even before they opened in the morning under sunny skies.
"The election is our way of getting rid of corruption," Mohammed Abu
Harbeed, a supporter of pro-Hamas candidates.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, sworn to the Jewish state´s destruction,
have won many hearts during the conflict and pose a challenge to the
two-state diplomacy pursued by the dominant Palestinian Authority
Hamas made significant inroads in last month´s West Bank municipal
elections in which the mainstream Fatah made the strongest showing.
The Islamist group, which runs a social welfare network, is generally
even more popular in cramped, coastal Gaza, where 1.4 million
Palestinians live in often dire poverty. (© Reuters 2005 01/27/05)
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