Palestinians have been turning out in their thousands to cast their votes in the first ever municipal elections in the Gaza Strip. It is being seen as a test of support between the new president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Islamist groups, particularly Hamas.
In last month’s West Bank municipal elections, Hamas made significant inroads, although mainstream Fatah had the strongest showing.
Abbas has been trying to coax a ceasefire from militant groups and prevent a chaotic power vacuum when Israeli troops and settlers withdraw from Gaza this year under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan.
Analysts say there is a direct connection between today’s elections and the upcoming negotiations between Abbas and Sharon. If Hamas and other groups gain power in the municipal poll, they are likely to demand more power within the Palestinian Authority.
But Hamas has strong grassroots popularity. In fact, the group, which runs a social welfare network, is generally even more popular in cramped, coastal Gaza where 1.4 million Palestinians live in often dire poverty than the West Bank.