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(photo credit: AP [file])
Just minutes after the ballots closed across the Palestinian territories, gunfire erupted in the streets of Gaza. Palestinian youths took to the streets, firing automatic weapons from their car windows and closed off city blocks in a jubilant if chaotic mass celebration, with shots ringing out every few seconds.
But rather than street warfare, the shooting represented Gaza's version of celebrating democracy as Hamas and Fatah both sought to claim victory in the neck-and-neck campaign.
Promises from terrorist factions for a peaceful election came true here Wednesday as Palestinians voted in an extremely high turnout, without a single reported incident of violence in Gaza - a strip of land teeming with 1.3 million people and synonymous with street warfare and anarchy.
Preliminary results suggested a victory for Fatah in Gaza by a margin of 40 percent to 30% for Hamas, the Central Elections Committee said.
If the results hold, they would be a small surprise considering Gaza's standing as a Hamas stronghold.
"It went surprisingly well," Eyad Farraj, a Gaza psychiatrist and the head of the Wa'ad party list, said of the elections here. "There were so many people who were apprehensive about the civility of the factions, particularly Fatah, but it seems like they made a decision to abide by the democratic process."
In cities throughout Gaza, a festive mood prevailed on streets awash in the green, gold, and occasional red flags of Hamas, Fatah and the PFLP, respectively. Throughout the day, taxis and vans sporting the colors of their favorite parties carted voters to the polls as youths flew flags out the windows and flashed victory signs to go along with them.
Were it not for the security forces who made their presence felt but kept their automatic rifles in check, a visitor to Gaza might have mistaken election day for a color war.
But the stakes here were high, and in interviews conducted by The Jerusalem Post around the Gaza Strip, voters painted a picture of deep satisfaction with the democratic process but varying ideas about the party best suited to lead the first genuinely democratic Palestinian Legislative Council.
Where Hamas voters unanimously criticized Fatah, and by extension the PA, as corrupt, Fatah voters maintained theirs was still the only party that could deliver a state for the Palestinian people.
In the Rimel neighborhood in northern Gaza City, Jamila Muhammad Harb, 80, was led, hand in hand, away from a polling station by her 17-year-old grandson Mahmoud after voting for Fatah. "It was something patriotic for Palestine," Harb said, adding it was the first time she voted.
"Fatah was the first to do everything," said Amal Harb 40, Jamila's daughter-in-law. "They were the first to fight Israel, they started the liberation project of Palestine. Every party has corruption but Fatah gives us the best chance for peace with Israel."
At the Rafah Preparatory Boys School just north of the Egyptian border, Samir Khalil, 50, struck a much different note. He said the ink on his index finger was one more vote for Hamas, and an end to the status quo.
"They are the best, the other guys had 10 years in the PLC and until now accomplished nothing for the Palestinian people," said Khalil, who has been unemployed for the last five years. "They have a high salary and nice cars and while they go off to Ramallah, Egypt, and Europe we are stuck here and they don't give a damn about us."
Hassan el-Azazy, 42, whose family, like Khalil's, fled from a town close to Tel Aviv during the 1948 war, stroked his long salt-and-pepper beard as he listened to his friend speak. When Khalil finished, he added that "Hamas will get us our land back, God willing. Israel should go to the sea."
Other Hamas voters were drawn by the movement's Islamic credentials.
In the Del el Sultan neighborhood of Rafah, an area literally on the border with Egypt which was heavily damaged by the IDF during the second intifada, a group of women dressed in full, black burkas sat outside their polling station after casting votes for Hamas.
Among them was Atidal em Ossama Affuga, 40, who voted for Hamas because she hoped it would work to install Islamic Sharia law in the Palestinian territories. "Islam is not just for us, it's for all the world," she said.
About the only scare during the day came outside the Kamal Nasser Secondary School in Khan Yunis, when a group of al-Aksa gunmen drove by the school, serving as a polling station, firing bullets in the air from the bed of a truck. A crowd of hundreds, who were loitering on the sidewalk and street outside the school, briefly ducked for cover before they realized the shots were not being fired in anyone's direction.
Despite orders to arrest anyone who fired guns on election day, security forces outside the school chose not to take that measure to keep the peace, they said. "If we tried to arrest them, it would have been big trouble," said Said Ishbir, 20, an M-16 thrown across his shoulder. "We just talked to them reasonably and they calmed down." Later, the same gunmen returned to the school - without their weapons - to campaign for Muhammad Dahlan.
Despite the gunshots outside the schoolyard where they were observing the elections, Cypriot parliamentarian Eleni Theocharous said he had not recorded any "cheating or interfering" with the ballot. "People are voting in peace and normality with full access," he said.
In Gaza City, the walls of many buildings, whose graffiti often acts as a pulse-taker for the mood of Gazans, were spray-painted with election slogans. And throughout the strip, posters of the late Yasser Arafat and Sheik Ahmed Yassin were spliced with pictures of Fatah No. 1 Marwan Barghouti and Hamas No. 1 Ismail Hania, respectively. But in all the locales visited by the Post, only one poster of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was on display, and it was hung high in the corner of a side wall, outside the field of vision of passers-by.
Throughout the day, taxis and buses rounded up voters all over Gaza in a ramped-up get-out-the-vote effort by the parties here. Fatah alone was buying the services of 600 buses in the half of Gaza City which Musbah Felfel was responsible for, the Fatah transportation coordinator said. The going rate for a bus or taxi driver for the day, including gas, was NIS 300.
Meanwhile, children combed the streets, flinging hand-size election placards through open car windows.
The efforts apparently worked. Voter turnout in Gaza registered 76.8%, compared to 62.5% in the West Bank, and 40%in Jerusalem, the Central Elections Commission said.
Where Gaza goes from here remains to be seen.
"We have seen real democracy here for the first time," Dr. Sarraj, the Wa'ad No. 1 said. "But this is only the first step. Whatever the results, people in Fatah will have to reposition themselves, and that will be painful." But at the very least, Gaza put one good day in the books.
Ayas Thabet contributed reporting for this article.