Anger, exhilaration and frustration as Palestinians head for the polls

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IT WAS a moment that they could hardly have believed they would live to see. Palestinians yesterday went to the polls, in elections which many see as a crucial step towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

Israel faced accusations that it had deliberately obstructed the voting, especially in Jerusalem. Elsewhere, however, it seemed that the turnout in these historic elections was high.

More than a million Palestinians were registered to vote in their first general election to choose a president and an 88-member legislative council. Undeterred by an Islamic militant boycott, voter turnout was projected at 90 per cent in the Gaza Strip and 85 per cent in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian election commission. Mahmoud Abbas, chief supervisor of the elections, said last night that from the preliminary count, over 90 per cent of the vote had gone to Mr Arafat, whose only opponent for president was the 72-year-old socialist activist Samiha Khalil. Next week the council will select an executive, almost certain to be headed by the PLO chairman.

After 28 years of occupation, Palestinians outside Jerusalem were in an exhilarated mood when the polls opened at 7am, with the first sunny day in a week of stormy weather adding to the holiday atmosphere in the West Bank and Gaza. In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the turnout was so heavy at one polling station that election officials had to use a stick to jam ballots into a box. Mr Arafat had his headdress knocked askew getting into a packed polling station in Gaza City to cast his vote.

For many the election is the true beginning of a Palestinian state, though on the map the so-called autonomous areas are a curious jigsaw puzzle of competing rights and authority. In Abu Dis, a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem outside the municipal boundaries, voters pouring into the local community centre were buoyant as they put votes for the president into a large red metal box and votes for the council into a white box. "I think it will make a big difference," said Ziad Aboul, a schoolteacher. "Now we have a country to vote for, things will be different."

In Jerusalem, however, there was frustration and anger. "The election is very important, but they won't let me vote," said Ibrahim Ali Eid, an elderly Palestinian carpenter, as he was turned away from the post office in Salahudin Street, where he had just tried to cast his ballot. He clutched a voting slip telling him to vote there in the first Palestinian general election in history, but officials could not find his name on the register.

An hour after the large post office had opened, no more than a couple of dozen voters had cast their ballots. In the street outside, the reasons were immediately apparent. Israeli soldiers were manning barricades, backed by a line of police. Within 10 minutes of the polls opening, they had arrested three Palestinian election monitors. Though the voting booths were empty, an Israeli policeman was telling voters: "There are too many people inside. Come back later." The Israeli government seemed to be going out of its way to emphasise its control of Jerusalem by keeping down the number of Palestinian voters. "Israel is simply trying to impose its views on the future of Jerusalem," said Eitan Felner of the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem.

The government had promised Palestinian monitors access to polling stations, said Mr Felner. But the only person who seemed to have any impact on the Israeli troops and police was former US president Jimmy Carter, leading his own group of monitors. "The Israelis are taking motion pictures of everybody voting," he said. "I don't think there is any doubt that they are trying to intimidate Palestinians." While Mr Carter's convoy crisscrossed Jerusalem, the numerous blue-jacketed monitors sent by the European Union appeared to be doing little.

Palestinian independence is still hedged about with restrictions. Access to the autonomous areas is controlled by Israel, but in the main towns of the West Bank, Israeli occupation ended quite suddenly last month. The final pull-out created extraordinarily little comment in Israel - the hardline opponents of the Oslo peace accords have kept their heads down since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November.

Palestinian opponents of the Oslo accords have also put up little resistance. The secular and Islamic opposition are boycotting the poll on the grounds that Mr Arafat has compromised on key demands. No settlements on the West Bank or in Gaza have been dismantled and 4,000 Palestinian prisoners are still in jail.