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Thousands Vote in Gaza as Peace Hopes Rise (WASHINGTON POST) By John Ward Anderson DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip 01/28/05 Page A20)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A42799-2005Jan27.html WASHINGTON POST WASHINGTON POST Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip, Jan. 27 -- Thousands of Palestinians voted Thursday in the first local elections in the Gaza Strip, while diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians heightened hopes for a new cease-fire in their current conflict, now in its fifth year.

DEIR EL-BALAH, Gaza Strip, Jan. 27 -- Thousands of Palestinians voted Thursday in the first local elections in the Gaza Strip, while diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians heightened hopes for a new cease-fire in their current conflict, now in its fifth year.

Official results of the elections were not expected until Friday at the earliest, but according to an exit poll in the four largest towns where voting was held, the radical Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, scored several resounding victories. Hamas captured 13 of the 15 seats being contested here in Deir el-Balah, according to the poll, and 12 of 13 seats in the southern Gaza town of Beni Suheila.

The elections coincided with a warming trend in Israeli-Palestinian relations in which officials from both sides have made significant conciliatory gestures and voiced rare praise for their counterparts.

The Palestinian Authority´s prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, signed an order Thursday prohibiting civilians from publicly carrying weapons in areas controlled by the Palestinians, according to the authority´s minister for negotiations, Saeb Erekat. On paper at least, the measure empowers Palestinian security forces to confiscate weapons from gunmen in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians also began deploying security forces in central and southern Gaza to prevent guerrillas from firing mortars and rockets at Jewish settlements and Israeli towns, Erekat said.

Erekat said that the Palestinians had submitted a proposal for a mutual cease-fire declaration to the Israeli government and that the Israelis, who had expressed reluctance about a formal declaration, were considering it. The two sides are also discussing an end to Israel´s policy of targeting militant leaders for assassination, the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails and the transfer of security authority to Palestinian forces in several major cities in the West Bank.

"It´s a new day," Erekat said. At least, he added, "that´s what we´re aiming for."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who this month suspended contacts with the Palestinians for two weeks and complained that their new president, Mahmoud Abbas, was not doing enough to combat terrorism, reversed course in an interview published Thursday in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. "I am very satisfied with what I am hearing is happening on the Palestinian side, and I am very interested in advancing processes" with Abbas, Sharon was quoted as saying.

Other Israeli leaders, however, expressed opposition to a cease-fire. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, speaking from New York with Israel´s Army Radio, said that as long as Palestinian groups held weapons that could be turned against Israel, "a cease-fire is a ticking bomb which will blow up in our faces."

A senior Israeli official said: "Israel will not talk about a cease- fire officially. We don´t go into a cease-fire with terrorist organizations. What we´re talking about is understandings."

For instance, "there will not be targeted killings unless there is a ticking bomb," meaning an imminent attack, said the official, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of discussions. "If tomorrow the new head of Hamas walks on the street of Gaza, he will not be targeted by Israel. But tomorrow if a Hamas terrorist is on the way to Jerusalem, he will be targeted."

Some Palestinian political analysts said that Thursday´s local elections in 10 Gaza communities would help usher in an era of accountable, democratic government that would have a moderating effect on Islamic extremist groups.

"I am sure this democratic process will diminish the influence and effect of these religious parties, but we have to get them into the political system, and then they will have to act according to the rule of law and democracy, and that will be a great achievement not only for Palestine, but for the whole region," said Raji Sourani, a human rights activist in Gaza.

According to exit polling by the Center for Palestinian Research and Studies, voters in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, which has been devastated by Israeli military operations, awarded Hamas six seats, while Fatah, the political movement of Yasser Arafat, came in second with three. In Maghazi, the fourth town surveyed, Fatah won 12 seats and Hamas one.

Rather than run under their official names, every party chose a different name for its block of candidates. Fatah´s candidates were on the Martyrs´ List, while Hamas called its slate the Change and Reform List.

In Deir el-Balah -- with about 60,000 residents, the largest town where elections were held Thursday -- streets were lined with colorful flags and posters depicting the founders of the two main parties: Fatah´s Arafat, who died in November, and Hamas´s Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was killed in an Israeli missile strike last April.

Hamas, which has conducted numerous suicide bombing attacks against Israelis and is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, plastered buildings with posters, strung signs between streetlights and inundated polling places with campaign workers in green baseball caps. Block after block was decorated with party messages clearly targeting what opinion surveys show is widespread disenchantment with cronyism and corruption in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians in Gaza, which before its occupation by Israel in 1967 was ruled by Egypt, have never voted in local elections. The previous council here was entirely appointed, and entirely Fatah.

"The old council belonged to one group, and look at the streets, the corruption, the lack of services," said Rewaa Mohammed Abu Hewishel, 19, who had adorned her black burqa with a bright green sash reading, "Change and Reform Islam is the solution."

"People are sick of corruption," said her friend, Nour Abu Sbetan, also dressed in a burqa. "We want to build a new Islamic state."

Correspondent Molly Moore and researcher Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report. (© 2005 The Washington Post Company 01/28/05)

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