The first votes have been cast in Palestinian elections ahead of the official opening of the polls on Wednesday.  The Palestinian Authority is facing a stiff challenge from the Islamic militant group Hamas.

Nearly 60,000 members of the Palestinian security forces cast the first votes Saturday in landmark parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The early vote reflects growing concern over lawlessness, after Palestinian gunmen repeatedly seized government offices in the run-up to the official election day on January 25. By voting now, police and soldiers can deploy in force to prevent violence during the elections.

The Palestinian Authority's failure to restore law and order has weakened the ruling Fatah party led by President Mahmoud Abbas. And it has played into the hands of the Islamic militant group Hamas, which is expected to make a strong showing at the polls.

Palestinian analyst Bassam Eid says the Palestinian Authority is widely seen as ineffective and corrupt.

"See, everybody knows that Hamas is just climbing on such corruption of the Palestinian Authority and of the Fatah itself," he said.  "I think that Hamas is getting more and more supporters, while the Palestinians start in the street talking about the Palestinian corruption."

Hamas has carried out dozens of deadly suicide bombings and is committed to the destruction of Israel. The group is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations. President Abbas hoped that by bringing Hamas into the political process, the group would renounce violence and become more moderate.

But Israeli analyst Pinchas Inbari says that has not happened.

"As long as they refuse to give up their arms and to dismantle the military militias, it means they are still sticking to the struggle and to the jihad and the resistance," he said.  "So you cannot play in the political arena and to be a military militia."

Hamas left little doubt about its intentions at a rally attended by tens of thousands of supporters in Gaza on Friday. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya said the group will continue the armed struggle until the liberation of Jerusalem and the destruction of Israel.