Thousands of members of the Palestinian security forces began casting ballots for parliamentary candidates yesterday in the official start of voting for this week's Palestinian elections.
Some 58,700 security personnel throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip were expected to participate in special early voting in the coming days -- ahead of Wednesday's election -- to allow them to take up positions on election day.
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 on Friday put the two movements in a dead heat.
Wednesday's mass deployment is to prevent political violence. 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 casting of ballots.
Voting opened on Saturday shortly after 7am and was to continue until tomorrow. Dozens of police lined up at one station in the West Bank city of Nablus to vote.
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,'' he said.
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," Sakallah said.
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.
Palestinians will choose 132 parliament members -- 66 from national party lists and 66 in local district voting.
Hamas is expected to make a strong showing. Best known for carrying out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, Hamas has run a well-organized campaign focusing on internal Palestinian issues, such as improving public services and ending government corruption. In contrast, Fatah has been riven by disarray, infighting and widespread perceptions of corruption.
Dozens of disgruntled Fatah activists, angry after being kept off the party's slate of candidates, are running as independents in the district voting, threatening to split the Fatah vote and further boost Hamas. Fatah's party slate also is problematic.
It includes at least two vigilante gunmen widely feared in their towns, including a man who calls himself Hitler and last year executed a suspected informer for Israel in front of a large crowd.
During the election campaign, Hamas candidates have generally adopted a conciliatory tone and been evasive about whether the group would renounce violence.