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Palestinians Vote for President to Succeed Yasser Arafat


Early voting has gone smoothly across the West Bank and Gaza Strip where Palestinians are choosing a new president, but some problems were reported in East Jerusalem. The elections are seen as an important step to possibly reviving peace talks with Israel. VOA's Larry James has visited several polling stations in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

For the first time in nine years, Palestinians are going to the polls to choose a president and indications are the balloting is going smoothly.

Mikhail Margelov, the vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, led one of the teams of international observers.

"I see that the process of voting is very well organized and very well managed," he said. "The logistics is working just like a Swiss clock and I have no complaints about it."

Some minor problems were reported early in the day. Election monitors also noted confusion at polling stations and over voter registration lists in East Jerusalem. Some Palestinian officials complained of Israel impeding the vote, although election monitors said Israel appeared to be fulfilling its promise to ease access for voters to polling sites.

Voter turnout by mid-morning in Ramallah was described as steady and moderate. The weather has been sunny, but cold, and there is an upbeat mood among voters.

In the Gaza Strip, voting was also reported going smoothly at mid-morning and turnout was reported as good to heavy, despite the fact that the influential militant group Hamas called for a boycott of the election.

Palestinian reporter Mohammed Dawas visited several polling stations in the northern Gaza Strip and told VOA he was surprised by the turnout, even in Hamas strongholds.

"It is great here. I never expected this to happen today," he said. "Some people say, it is our obligation, it is our right to go and vote. It is the time we have been waiting for."

In the West Bank town of al Bireh, Imad Abbadi cast his ballot for Fatah candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, the man he believes has a realistic understanding of the political realities Palestinians face.

Mr. Abbadi says the geographical realities cannot be changed, the facts on the ground cannot be changed. Whoever leads the Palestinian people must accept that before anyone can expect real progress.

If opinion polls are correct, Mr. Abbas will win hands down even though there are six other candidates in the running.

But, Ala Jaradat says he is not casting a ballot in protest over the fact that too many Palestinians, both refugees in the diaspora and militant groups are not part of the process.

"We still have another 4.5 million Palestinians," he said. "You have the Islamic groups that are boycotting the elections. Without them being part of the process I think we will still have disagreement and different leaderships and legitimacies, so I am not taking part in this process."

Palestinian voters are looking to a new president to change things for the better to improve their daily lives and to perhaps re-start peace negotiations with Israel.

Israel has put its security forces on alert in case of violence during the election. Israeli police held back Israeli demonstrators from disrupting voting in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian militants in Gaza fired several rockets into Israel, and in a separate incident, Hizbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon attacked an Israeli military patrol in the disputed Shebaa Farms area along the border. An Israeli military spokeswoman told VOA one Israeli soldier was killed in an explosion in the area.