Palestinian security forces begin voting parliamentary for candidates

Palestinian security forces cast ballots for parliamentary candidates Saturday in the official start of this week's Palestinian elections, an advance vote that reflected the fragile security situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The 58,700 security personnel, who will be permitted to vote through Monday, are being deployed on election day Wednesday to prevent possible political violence.

The ruling Fatah Party faces a stiff challenge from the Islamic group Hamas, which is participating in a legislative vote for the first time. A poll released Friday put the two movements in a dead heat. Although the two sides have pledged to avoid violence on election day, tensions remain high. Gunmen, mostly from groups affiliated with Fatah, have repeatedly taken over election and government offices in recent weeks and threatened to disrupt the election.

At the Shawki school, one of Gaza City's two polling stations, about 10 people waited quietly outside for voting to start. The school was heavily guarded, and the voters, wearing civilian clothes, had to present identification and hand over their weapons to the guards before casting their ballots.

"I came to vote because it's a national duty," said Hisham Sakallah, 39, a member of the elite Force 17 security unit. "I hope the election will pass smoothly so we can send a civilized image to the world about our people and about our respect for democracy."

Paralyzed by disease, Sakallah, who now has an administrative job, entered the station on crutches. "We have had no problems so far and it looks like it's a positive thing," said Hanna Nasser, head of the Palestinian election commission.

To prevent fraud, forces guarding the stations were not permitted to enter the voting areas, and each voter had to mark his finger with special ink to make sure they did not vote twice. Observers from local human rights groups monitored the voting.

Sakallah, a longtime Fatah activist, said he voted for the party because he believes it is best positioned to lead the Palestinians to independence. "They are the people who started this process, and the people able to continue this."

Outside the station, a small group of Hamas activists wearing the group's trademark green baseball caps and bandanas greeted voters. There were no Fatah activists visible. In the West Bank city of Nablus, dozens of police eagerly lined up at one station in the West Bank city of Nablus to vote. In Ramallah, security men wearing uniforms and green berets cast ballots quietly and orderly.

Some Fatah officials, meanwhile, have said that Hamas plans to punish or fire members of the security forces if it wins the election.

Hamas' No. 1 candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, urged voters "not to listen or pay attention to the rumors." In a statement issued Saturday, the group urged security personnel "to practice their legal right to vote freely and honestly away from any form of threat." "No one can know who you voted for, only God," the statement said, reports the AP. N.U.