The ruling Fatah party on Monday called off primary elections in the Gaza Strip following a series of attacks on polling stations and armed clashes between rival gangs. The elections are being held ahead of next January's parliamentary vote. The voting was suspended only hours before the ballot boxes were supposed to close, drawing sharp criticism from many of the candidates. About 200,000 voters were supposed to cast their ballots in 145 polling stations in various parts of the Gaza Strip, where more than 360 candidates are vying for 49 seats. Fatah leaders who held an emergency meeting in Gaza City on Monday evening decided to call of the elections because of what they described as "serious transgressions." Referring to scenes of anarchy and violence that accompanied the voting process, the Fatah leaders said it had become impossible to hold the elections under the current circumstances. The decision is seen as a severe blow to Fatah and is likely to have a negative impact on its chances of making a strong showing in the parliamentary elections, slated for January 25. Moreover, the decision is likely to play into the hands of Hamas, which is planning to contest the vote for the first time since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. Some top PA officials here expressed fear that the events in the Gaza Strip would prompt the Palestinian leadership to postpone the parliamentary elections. "Fatah is facing a very serious crisis," one official told The Jerusalem Post. "The divisions are so deep that we will have to consider delaying the elections." Another official termed what happened in the Gaza Strip during the day as a "huge scandal." He added: "How can we talk about holding free and democratic elections when gunmen are attacking polling stations and threatening to kill candidates?" The violence began almost immediately after the polling stations were opened in the morning. Fatah gunmen in Khan Yunis, Beit Hanoun and Dir al-Balah stormed the stations and opened fire into the air, forcing election observers to flee for their lives. In one case, a group of gunmen lobbed a home-made explosive device at one of the stations. Many of the attackers claimed that their names had been removed from the voters' list in a bid to prevent them from participating in the elections. On Friday, primary elections for Fatah were held in some West Bank areas, but many candidates and activists have openly challenged the results, saying the vote was anything but fair and democratic. Abdel Fattah Hamayel, one of the candidates from the Ramallah area, called for an independent judicial commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of fraud and violations. "The Palestinian security forces are responsible for the chaos because they did not intervene," he said. Calling for canceling the results of the elections in the Ramallah area, Hamayel claimed that some members of the security forces had filled the ballot boxes with votes prior to the elections. Another candidate, Samir Shehadeh, described the primary vote in the West Bank as a "theater," saying the results had been forged. He also announced that he was suspending his membership in Fatah in protest against the cheating. Dalal Salameh, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, sent an urgent letter to PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas in which she said that the way the elections were held showed that the Palestinians have failed the democratic test. In a related development, Internal Security Minister Gideon Ezra vowed on Monday to do all in his power to prevent Palestinians from setting up ballot boxes in east Jerusalem on Tuesday for the Fatah primaries. "In no way will we let them set up polls in east Jerusalem," Ezra said. "Jerusalem is Israel's capital and it will remain Israel's unified capital." If Palestinians from East Jerusalem wanted to vote, Ezra said, they could travel to Abu Dis or cross over the security fence to other Arab suburbs of Jerusalem where ballot boxes would be placed.