Palestinians streamed into more than 1,000 polling stations Wednesday in the first parliamentary election in a decade, one that will determine the shape of future prospects for returning to peace talks with Israel.
The ballot itself is largely viewed as a reality check over who Palestinians want steering them into that future: secular Fatah Party, the ruling faction that brought the Palestinian Authority (PA) into being through its willingness to negotiate with Israel, or Islamic Hamas, which stands by suicide bombings and other attacks as its way of facing off with the Jewish state.
Three hours after the polls closed, different organizations released varying figures. Al Arabiyeh, the Arab satellite channel, estimated that of the 132 seats, Fatah won 65 and Hamas won 48. But Al Jazeera, quoting an exit poll carried out by Bir Zeit University near Ramallah, showed Fatah winning 63 seats and Hamas winning 58.
Exit polls suggest that small parties and independent candidates attracted more supporters than expected, and many of these would be natural coalition partners of Fatah.
These potential allies of Fatah include the Third Way Party, led by former finance minister Salaam Fayyad and Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, as well as a liberal, progressive party led by Dr. Mustafa Barghouti.
Official results were expected to be released Thursday.
Given recent unrest in the West Bank and Gaza, the elections were carried out without any major incidents of violence or disruptions at polling stations.
Still, many campaign activists bent the rules, ignoring a prohibition on any electioneering outside the voting places. Hadija Jadour and Samah Jarah passed out campaign cards to voters who made their way up the dirt road into a girls' school in Obediyeh, a West Bank municipality east of Bethlehem.
The women describe themselves as friends, but the black-and-white keffiyeh-style sash that Ms. Jadour wears stands in contrast to the green one around Ms. Jarah's veil. That seems to say it all: Palestinians are deeply divided over who should lead and how.
The keffiyah marks Jadour's support for Fatah, while Jarah's green ribbon shows the world, as she puts it, "I love Hamas."
Explains Jarah: "Hamas has always been the center of the resistance, and they are working on giving assistance to people and developing our society."
"It's not true," argues Jadour, smiling wryly at her friend's comment. "Fatah is the one who established the Palestinian Authority in the first place. Fatah wants to solve things in a diplomatic way, not by violence."
Asked if they discuss these issues often, the women grin and look in different directions. "We don't go into politics," says Jarah, "or it might ruin the good relationship we have."
That dynamic, pitting friend against friend, and even brother against brother, was repeated throughout the Palestinian territories. Among the more famed divisions, one of the senior-most members of the Fatah, Jibril Rajoub, who long served as the West Bank security czar for the PA, was running against his own brother, Naif Rajoub, an Islamic religious figure who is high on the list of candidates for Hamas.
"Let's remember that the decision to hold new elections was made by us in Fatah, to reestablish the legitimacy of the regime. But I'm sure both of us will win," Jibril Rajoub says, speaking of his brother. "There's nothing wrong with having him, as part of Hamas, in the government. I'm proud of that."
But Hamas isn't sure that it's actually prepared to be part of a government led by Fatah - particularly one with plans to carve out peace with Israel.
One top candidate in Hamas, interviewed in Ramallah, says that Hamas is keeping its options open. It may decide to join Fatah and be a partner in the PA, or it may decide to instead play the role of a feisty opposition party, blocking attempts to make concessions in negotiations with Israel. Equally interesting, however, may be what Hamas plans to do domestically with its bolstered muscle and putative legitimacy.
"We want to clean the internal Palestinian house, to put an end to corruption in the Palestinian Authority, and to bring to justice those who have stolen from the people," says Ahmad Abdel-Aziz Mubarek, a Ramallah candidate for Hamas. "The Authority sometimes banned Hamas people from getting jobs and harassed them. We will put an end to that."
Driving much of the dissatisfaction with the PA is the lawlessness that has gripped Gaza since Israeli disengagement last year. At a polling station there, a spurt of machine-gun fire rang out. Voters and election workers barely flinched as sporadic gunfire has become all too common in the coastal strip.
There was plenty else to fuel the anxiety. Hamas leader Mahmoud az-Zahar predicted there would be voter fraud, and last month a Fatah primary in Gaza was cancelled because of attacks on voting booths. But voting Wednesday was festive nonetheless. Banners of Fatah yellow and Hamas green fluttered from taxis and minivans ferrying groups of voters to the polls.
"Congratulations, Palestine for the day of democracy, the day of freedom," crooned a singer on a radio station.
In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, voters cast ballots at a school surrounded by bullet-ravaged buildings, a grim reminder of the five-year Israeli war against the Palestinians.
Atidal Hafagah says the outer wall of her house was once destroyed by the Israelis, but life has improved since the September withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza. A black hijab covering her face, Hafagah says she voted for Hamas, which she thought would rid the PA of corruption and institute Islamic rule.
Indeed, Mr. Mubarek says that Hamas gradually will change Palestinian society so that it conforms with Islamic law, or sharia. For example, he says, Hamas will see to it that the casino in Jericho will be closed down, since gambling is forbidden in Islam.
He says that it should be mandatory that people give zakkat, or charity, which is one of a Muslim's five major religious duties. "Christians will pay a different kind of tax," he adds, "and we will consider Christians as full citizens. We will deal with the minorities in Palestine according to Islamic rules."
Campaign pledges like these may have attracted some voters, but they quickly turn others off - including other Muslims.
At the Deheishe Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, secular Palestinians were trying to round up support for a leftist party, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, one of 11 lists in the race.
"Hamas wants an Islamic state, not a Palestinian state," says Mohammed Ramadan, a schoolteacher who was dismayed by growing support for Hamas. "We believe we need to build our state with a political and social program, without imposing Islam on people."
Outside the polling station in Dar Salah, a large village southeast of Jerusalem, Hamas certainly seemed the most palpable presence.
Although members of Fatah were elected last year to lead the local council, posters of Hamas carpeted the ramshackle town overlooking the desert. Most of the posters featured Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdul Aziz Rantissi, two top Hamas leaders assassinated by Israel in 2004.
A white four-wheel drive vehicle, festooned with Hamas flags, sat parked at the entrance to the school where voters entered.
"We will cooperate with anyone who has clean hands, who safeguards the Palestinian people, and who opposes the occupation," says Nidal Huzeibi, the man with the keys. "But I totally reject recognition of Israel because they don't give us our rights," he says. "I'm 100 percent sure that Hamas will soon be the largest force on the Palestinian street."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose seat is not up for reelection, said Wednesday that the PA will renew negotiations with Israel even if Hamas is a partner in the government. But the US and Israel have made clear that they will not deal with Hamas, which they consider a terrorist group.
Former President Jimmy Carter, heading a 900-member observer mission to the elections, told reporters Wednesday that the US would distinguish being Hamas in the legislative branch and Hamas at the helm: "The US government is prepared to continue to deal with the Palestinian Authority with Hamas members in the government. But if Hamas members become part of the executive branch, US law would preclude dealing with them."