Palestinians in the West Bank have been voting in the first municipal elections for nearly three decades. Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie was among the first to cast his ballot, he said the vote was the first step towards establishing a Palestinian state. The poll is being seen as a dress rehearsal for next month’s presidential election to choose a successor to Yasser Arafat.
It could also prove a test of strength between the dominant Fatah movement and the militant group Hamas. In the West Bank there are about 1000 candidates competing for about 300 seats on local councils. Though Hamas has boycotted the Presidential poll its fielded candidates for this election.
If it has a good showing it could make it tougher for the new president to persuade fighters to disarm and accept a ceasefire. The ballot in Gaza has been delayed because violence there prevented voter registration. Yesterday, the British Prime Minister was in the region to shore up his plans for a Middle East conference to be held in Britain next year. Tony Blair met both Israeli and Palestinian leaders to win their agreement for the summit on Palestinian reform. He described it as a first step towards re-opening negotiations following the deadlock of the Israeli Palestinian road map peace plan.