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Wednesday's Palestinian Elections Too Close to Call

Politicians in the Palestinian territories wrapped up a final day of campaigning Monday, ahead of a crucial vote Wednesday, when Palestinians will go to the polls to elect a new legislature. Wednesday's vote has developed into a contest between the mainstream Fatah Party of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and the Islamic militant group, Hamas.

Downtown Ramallah was a sea of campaign posters and a chorus of sound trucks as Palestinians were bombarded with last minute appeals for their vote on Wednesday. Voters will go to the polls to choose 132 legislators from more than 400 candidates running in a hotly contested campaign.

Last year, Palestinians went to the polls and elected Mahmoud Abbas as president, but now one year later, Mr. Abbas' Fatah Party is struggling to maintain its grip on power.

Polls show Fatah is in a statistical dead heat with Hamas, the avowedly Islamist militant party sworn to Israel's destruction. Even in Ramallah, a stronghold of Fatah support, voters like this man who gave his name as Maher, said he would vote for Fatah on a national list of candidates, but for Hamas in local district elections, which will also be decided on Wednesday.

"I hope Fatah will win because of Fatah's experience in leading Palestine. We are talking of years of leading Palestine," said the man. "I also would like Hamas to win some chairs in elections, but we hope Fatah will win in the large chairs in the elections."

Just down Ramallah's main street, this man who asked not to be identified said he would vote for Hamas because of the organization's uncompromising stand toward Israel.

The voter says he does not believe Israel's threats not to negotiate with Palestinians if Hamas wins the elections. He says Hamas is the only party he trusts when it comes to dealing with Israel, because he says Hamas is the only party that will not give up any further Palestinian territory to Israel.

Hamas is categorized as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union. The U.S. Congress has threatened to cut all funding to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas joins any future government. Israel says it will not negotiate with any Palestinian government that includes Hamas, although former Prime Minister Shimon Peres now a member of the centrist Kadima party, has said Israel would reconsider its position, if Hamas renounces violence and disarms after the election.

In a hint that Hamas might be amenable to negotiations with Israel, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip said Monday that Hamas might consider third party talks with Israel, if Israel releases Hamas prisoners and halts attacks against Hamas militants.

Meanwhile more than 900 foreign observers have fanned out across the West Bank and Gaza Strip to monitor Wednesday's polling and post-elections developments. Former President Jimmy Carter leads a joint delegation from the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute. Leslie Campbell, NDI's Mideast regional director says two issues seem to be dominating the run-up to the vote.

"I would say from a technical vantage point it has to be freedom of movement and whether or not the voters, candidates and others are free to do what they need to do," he said. "From an elections issue vantage point the larger issue is probably the participation of Hamas in the sense that it leads to very hot competition. It has caused a lot of international consternation. So, therefore, there is so much at stake that it has raised the temperature of the election."

Among those voting on Wednesday will be Arab residents of East Jerusalem. A number of East Jerusalem residents will be allowed to cast ballots in Israeli post offices in East Jerusalem, while others will be allowed to travel to the West Bank to vote. Israel says it will pull back some troops and ease restrictions at West Bank checkpoints in order to allow Palestinians access to the polls.