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Palestinians Vote Under Heavy Security

Palestinians voted under heavy security on Wednesday to select a new 132-seat Legislative Council or parliament.

Polling stations were busy all across Ramallah, the West Bank city where the Palestinian Legislative Council will meet in a new session in March.

The battle over who will control that legislature got off to an early start at the Koranic Boys School in the Jenan neighborhood of Ramallah.

Voters appeared evenly divided between supporters of the ruling Fatah Party of President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas, the Islamic militant group which ran in Wednesday's election under the party name of Reform and Change. University Professor Jawdat Manna, a Fatah supporter, said while he hoped Fatah would win a convincing victory, he welcomed the participation of multiple parties in the election.

"There are many choices because groups like Hamas have come into the elections," he said. "We believe that it will support democracy in this country although they face difficulties from abroad, like countries like the United States that opposes Hamas. But here we believe that we have to bring all the groups into the election."

Many Ramallah voters were seeking a change on Wednesday and most who said they wanted change said they wanted a Hamas victory. Student Ahmad abu Quake said he cast his vote for Hamas, saying he was fed up with what he described as 10 years of misrule by Fatah.

"...We tried them [Fatah] 10 years. They [Fatah] were a failure in politics, they were a failure in giving services, they were a failure in everything. They are corrupt," he said.

Nadr Sa'id, the Director of the Development Studies Program at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah and a leading pollster of Palestinian political opinion, says differences evident on election day go deeper than politics and indicate a split along cultural lines within Palestinian society.

"On the social, ideological and cultural issues we will see that many fights will take place now and it will be extremely vicious," said Sa'id. "The real fight now in this election is between the secular and the religious for the most part. I think this is the main cause of this fierce fight. For the first time there is a chance for the religious and the secular to settle their long term subtle and indirect disputes and now it is time to resolve this once and for all."

If Hamas wins enough seats in the legislative elections it could be offered seats in the next Palestinian cabinet, a prospect that has alarmed not only Israel, but also the United States and the European Union, who consider Hamas a terrorist organization and have threatened to cut off development aid to Palestinians if Hamas enters any Palestinian government without first renouncing violence and disarming its militants.

Hamas officials have said they have no intention of either changing their charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel, or disarming, saying they will not allow outside forces to dictate the terms of how they gain political power.