January 21, 1996
Web posted at: 12:40 a.m. EST (0540 GMT)
RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- As Palestinian election officials emptied boxes brimming with ballots and began the momentous process of counting, two facts emerged quickly and clearly: Voters had turned out in phenomenal numbers, and Yasser Arafat was racing toward a landslide victory.
With 60 percent of the ballots counted under the watchful eyes of international observers, Arafat received 85 percent of the votes in the historic and mostly peaceful exercise of selecting a president for Palestine under self-rule.
Arafat's only opponent, 72-year-old social worker Samiha Khalil, picked up 10 percent of the votes, the Palestinian election commission said early Sunday.
A final tally was expected later in the day.
More than a million Palestinians were registered to vote in the elections for a president and 88-seat legislative council.
As red, white, black, and green Palestinian flags fluttered in central squares in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians thronged to the polling stations, eager to participate in this defining moment in their long and hard-won battle for self-rule.
Voter turnout was projected at 90 percent in the Gaza Strip and 85 percent in the West Bank, according to the election commission. After dusk, as the polling wound down, Palestinian officials called the turnout highly satisfactory, especially in Gaza.
For nearly 30 years, the orange identity card was a detested symbol of Israeli occupation. Now Palestinians were using it to gain a badge of pride -- their voter's slip.
Undeterred by the declaration of an election boycott by Hamas and other militant groups that oppose the Middle East peace process, long lines of voters remained even after the official closing time.
The late-night rush was a repeat of what election observers say was the major problem in Gaza -- too many people wanted to vote.
Many Palestinians had waited all their lives for this day. And it seemed that no one was willing to pass up the chance to choose their first democratically elected leadership.
Arafat had his kaffiyeh headdress knocked askew as he made his way Saturday through the crowd at a packed polling station in Gaza City.
"This is the first legislative election for Palestinians, and this is a foundation for a Palestinian state," Arafat said as he voted at the Anas Ibn Malik high school.
While Arafat is predicted to be president of the Palestinian Council, voters here say he must improve the economy and expand employment opportunities to keep his job.
"That's the most important thing for Arafat to take care of, or the next election might be a different one," said one man after casting his ballot.
For some voters, exercising their franchise was a cathartic exercise. "After what happened, I felt I needed to vote, to raise my voice to bring an end to the occupation that still exists," said one voter.
In Hebron, the only West Bank city where Israeli troops remain, a Jewish settler was stabbed Saturday. Israel responded by closing down central Hebron, forcing voters to get escorts from among international observers.
With 4,000 Israeli guards swarming East Jerusalem and Hebron, a thick fog of tension hovered over the towns, causing fewer Palestinians to make a beeline for the polling booths. Occasional scuffles and arrests were reported. As of mid-afternoon, only 30 percent of Jerusalem voters had gone to the polls, so voting hours were extended by three hours.
"I don't think there is any doubt they are doing everything they can to intimidate the voters," said former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, head of a team of election observers.
In the West Bank town of Jenin, polling stations were deserted as thousands attended the funerals of three Hamas members who were killed by Israeli soldiers Friday after they fired on an army roadblock. But election officials said voting picked up later in the day after the Hamas activists were given the honor of a military burial.
As polls closed, thousands of Israelis took to Jerusalem's streets in protest of voting by Palestinians in the holy city. Palestinians view East Jerusalem, home to some of the most sacred Jewish and Muslim shrines, as the capital of a future state. Some 50,000 were registered to vote there.
The vote took place under terms of Israeli-PLO peace deals launched in 1993, which began the process of handing over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Palestinian self-rule.
Under Arafat's leadership, most Palestinian towns and cities in the West Bank and Gaza gained autonomy over the past two years, ending more than a quarter-century of Israeli occupation.
Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the high turnout showed that the vast majority of Palestinians supported the peace agreements with Israel.
Israel captured Arab East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war.
AP contributed to this report.
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