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Palestinians vote in key Gaza Strip local poll (REUTERS) By Nidal al-Mughrabi GAZA 01/27/05 01:51 PM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7456226 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
GAZA (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 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 ceasefire 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".

Senior election official Osama Abu Safiyah put election turnout at more than 80 percent, calling it a demonstration of the Palestinian commitment to democracy.

Abbas was elected to succeed Yasser Arafat as president by a landslide this month, but the vote was boycotted by Islamist groups opposed to peace accords with Israel and shown by opinion polls to have the support of about one quarter of the public.

Militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, sworn to the Jewish state´s destruction, have won many hearts not only because they are at the forefront of the fighting but also for charities that help needy Palestinians in the absence of government support.

The Islamists also call for reforms of the Palestinian administration.

"The election is our way of getting rid of corruption," said Mohammed Abu Harbeed, a supporter of pro-Hamas candidates.

Hamas made a strong showing in municipal elections in the West Bank last month and the group may do even better in Gaza, where 1.4 million Palestinians live in often dire poverty.

Political analysts say that by taking part in the municipal elections, Hamas is also demonstrating its political sway -- and claim to a share of power -- ahead of Israel´s planned withdrawal of Jewish settlers from Gaza.

Hamas is still debating whether to take part in parliamentary elections in July.

The Palestinian electoral commission expected results to be announced from the Gaza municipalities on Friday. (© Reuters 2005 01/27/05)

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