GAZA,(Reuters) – Palestinian security forces voted in the Legislative Council election on Saturday, casting ballots early to free them for duty in the main poll next week, the first to be contested by the militant group Hamas.
Some 60,000 members of the security forces are eligible to vote from Saturday to Monday, before the Jan. 25 election when Palestinian civilians will vote in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and Palestinians want as capital of a future state.
“This is a very important day for our people because all the parties are participating,” said police officer Hisham Saqala.
A poll published by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center found 32.3 percent of Palestinians would vote for President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and 30.2 percent for Hamas, which is running for seats in the 132-member parliament for the first time. There was no previous survey.
In a separate poll, the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research said 42 percent of Palestinians would vote for Fatah, while 35 percent would vote for Hamas. This contrasts with a previous poll ublished on Jan. 1, which gave Fatah 43 percent and Hamas just 25 percent.
The popularity of Hamas, which is dedicated to destroying the Jewish state, has grown as a result of the five-year-old Palestinian uprising and Israel’s Gaza pullout in September, and amid growing accusations of corruption within Fatah.
Top Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah told supporters on Friday: “We urge our brothers in the Palestinian security services to exercise their right to vote in complete freedom… We assure you that if we win, we will be at your service.”
Senior election official Ammar Dweik told Reuters 17 polling stations had been set up in the West Bank and Gaza for 60,000 eligible voters in the security forces. No serious violations had been reported, he added.
Dweik said the ballot boxes would be kept in polling stations under police protection, and counting would be carried out when the civilian polls closed to ensure transparency.
At one polling station in a Gaza school, several members from all groups running in the election monitored voting as officers, some wearing uniforms, cast their ballots.
One officer, Nayef Khweitar, said security men would not vote for groups which “opened fire at (police), fired rockets at our police stations and killed officers”, referring to pre-ballot lawlessness in the West Bank and Gaza. Saqala and Khweitar said they would vote for Fatah.
Policemen said Hamas had sent campaign leaflets to homes of officers, urging them to vote for it.
OPPOSITION TO HAMAS
Israel and the United States oppose Hamas’s participation in the ballot, the second Palestinian legislative election since 1996, saying Abbas must disarm the group and other militant factions as dictated by a U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.
Interim Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will hold a special meeting with senior security officials on Sunday to discuss the Palestinian elections and Hamas’s expected strong showing, Israel Radio said.
Abbas says Israel’s attacks on West Bank militants harm his security forces’ efforts to control gunmen and combat the lawlessness in the Palestinian territories.
Israel has vowed to continue its raids after a suicide bomber from Islamic Jihad blew up a Tel Aviv sandwich shop on Thursday. Abbas said the bombing was meant to sabotage the Palestinian vote.
Islamic Jihad, which is not running in the elections, has increased its attacks on Israelis in recent months, while other militant groups, including Hamas, have largely halted violence ahead of the ballot.