Amid tight security and a sea of green and yellow flags, Palestinians cast ballots in their first parliamentary election in a decade yesterday -- an historic vote integrating Islamic militants into Palestinian politics and determining the future of peacemaking with Israel.
Both the ruling Fatah Party and its challenger, the Islamic militant Hamas, said they were confident of victory, while pollsters said the race was too close to call. Both parties said they would consider a coalition if no clear victor emerges.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was ready to resume peace talks with Israel, even if Hamas joined his government after yesterday's vote.
"We are ready to negotiate," Abbas told Israeli reporters. "We are partners with the Israelis. They don't have the right to choose their partner. But if they are seeking a Palestinian partner, this partner exists."
Across the West Bank and Gaza, long lines formed outside polling stations, as Palestinians -- given a real choice for the first time -- eagerly cast their ballots for the 132 parliamentary seats up for grabs. In all, some 1.3 million voters were eligible and by early afternoon, more than 40 percent had voted, election officials said.
Even if it doesn't win outright, Hamas is widely expected to make a strong showing that would place the Islamists -- responsible for dozens of suicide bombings against Israel -- squarely inside the Palestinian political system for the first time.
Hamas' success has alarmed Israel and the West, though Abbas has argued that bringing them into the system will tame them, enabling peace moves to go forward.
In an apparent sign of pragmatism, Hamas has not carried out a suicide attack since a ceasefire was declared a year ago.
But yesterday, its top parliamentary candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, said Hamas had no intention of laying down its arms after the elections as Abbas has said he expects.
And another prominent candidate, Mahmoud Zahar, said his group was "not going to change a single word" in its covenant calling for Israel's destruction.
Abbas, elected a year ago, will still head the Palestinian Authority regardless of the results, but the voting will usher in a new Cabinet that could include Hamas members. Israel says it will not deal with Hamas until it disarms.