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Middle East

Palestine West Bank holds elections as Gaza Strip left behind

Bitter rivalries between the Hamas and Fatah parties were highlighted by the West Bank's municipal elections. The two territories have not held simultaneous elections since 2006.

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank voted for mayors and local councils in municipal elections on Saturday, their first democratic exercise in years.

Voting for several hundred municipal councils opened at schools across the West Bank at 7:00 a.m. local time [0500 UTC]. Polls for the 800,000 eligible voters closed at 7:00 p.m. with final results expected on Sunday.

The election highlighted the deep rift between President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party and Islamist rival Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip. The West Bank and Gaza have not voted together since 2006, when Hamas swept Palestinian parliamentary elections.

After the 2006 elections, the two parties could not agree on a power-sharing arrangement, leading to a near civil war in Gaza. In 2007 the Palestinian Authority split into two entities, each seeing itself as the true representative of Palestine. Hamas took control of Gaza, while Abbas's party was left with the West Bank.

This split is widely seen as a major obstacle to any settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Fatah and unaffiliated candidates close to Abbas were expected to win most seats in Saturday's election, as they did in 2012 polls boycotted by Hamas. Hamas did not present any candidate lists of its own, saying the vote would only add to divisions.

Voting was also supposed to take place in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, but was canceled when Hamas and several other Palestinian political factions chose to boycott it.

"No doubt this is the democratic life we have promised our people," said Fatah Deputy Chief Mahmoud al-Aloul. "Unfortunately this joy is taking place in the West Bank alone because Hamas is preventing the people from practicing this right in Gaza."

Gaza left behind

Hamas said the Palestinian Authority had made a unilateral decision to go ahead with the vote before an agreement on a legal framework had been reached, following an October ruling from the Palestinian High Court that found the judiciary in Gaza did not have the necessary "guarantees" in place for an election - a decision denounced by Hamas as "political."

"The elections are happening without national consensus. Holding them in the West Bank alone, without Gaza, will cement division," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

Some polls showed that Hamas would win any hypothetical parliamentary elections held now in both Gaza and the West Bank. But there are no concrete plans for presidential elections any time soon.

Following the 2006 election, however, the international community refused to work with Hamas governments until Hamas renounced violence and recognized Israel and past peace agreements.

aw/jlw (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)