GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - Amid tight security and a sea of green and yellow flags, Palestinians cast ballots in their first parliamentary election in a decade Wednesday - a historic vote that could shape the future of the peace process with Israel.
Both the ruling Fatah Party and its challenger, the Islamic militant Hamas, said they were confident of victory, while pollsters said the race was too close to call. Both parties said they would consider a coalition if no clear victor emerges.
"These elections will determine the fate of the Palestinian people," said Mohammed Shaabein, a 71-year-old retiree in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who voted in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said elections were proceeding smoothly, but complained of Israeli travel restrictions on West Bank roads. Israel had said it would ease checkpoints on voting day.
"We are so happy with this election festival," Abbas said, after dipping his index finger in ink, as required by all those casting ballots to prevent double voting.
The day had a joyous feel - some party activists decorated their cars with red carnations, as if for a wedding - and no disruptions were reported, despite initial concern about possible violence.
Some 13,500 police officers were deployed at 1,008 polling stations, taking up positions on rooftops and at entrances to enforce a weapons ban. In the West Bank refugee camp of Balata, gunmen who had initially threatened to derail voting checked their automatic rifles at the door before casting their votes.
However, right-wing Israeli lawmakers and extremists attempted to force their way into a Palestinian polling station in east Jerusalem, with 75 policemen blocking their way. And in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, police fired into the air to push back a crowd of impatient voters jostling their way into a polling station.
Across the West Bank and Gaza, long lines formed outside polling stations, as Palestinians - given a real choice for the first time since Hamas boycotted the last vote in 1996 - were eager to cast their ballots. In all, some 1.3 million voters were eligible to vote, and 132 parliament seats up for grabs.
First exit polls were to be released about an hour after polls close at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and official results were expected hours later.
Even it doesn't win outright, Hamas is widely expected to make a strong showing that would place the group squarely inside the Palestinian political system for the first time. Hamas has been responsible for dozens of suicide bombings against Israel, but none since a cease-fire was declared last February.
Hamas' success has alarmed Israel and the West, though Abbas has argued that bringing them into the system will tame them, enabling the peace process to move forward. Abbas, elected a year ago, will still head the Palestinian Authority regardless of Wednesday's results, but the voting will usher in a new Cabinet that will likely include Hamas members.
Hamas is expected to ask for service ministries - health, education and welfare - and to leave diplomacy, including contacts with Israel, to others. The group has focused on clean government in its campaign, and criticized Fatah's attempts at compromising with Israel as a sign of weakness.
Fatah, tainted by corruption after 12 years in power, was asking voters for another chance to pursue an elusive peace deal with Israel.
Israel has said it would not deal with Hamas politicians. Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Wednesday he hoped Palestinians would not "choose again the extremists who have led them from tragedy to tragedy and to sorrowful lives."
Activists from both parties were out in full force early Wednesday, handing out lists of candidates' names, baseball hats and scarves at the polls. The Beach refugee camp near Gaza City was decorated with flags - green for Hamas, yellow for Fatah - and the excitement in the air was palpable.
Outside another polling station at a boys' school, Fatah supporters wore the party's black-and-white checkered scarves decorated with Palestinian flags. Hamas activists sported green baseball hats, and many of the Hamas women wore full veils and gloves, once a rare sight in Gaza and a sign of the growing influence of fundamentalist Islamists in the impoverished coastal strip.
Both parties dispatched armies of volunteers to drive voters to the polls in cars, buses and even on motorcycles. One Hamas campaign organizer held a computerized list of voters to be picked up from their homes.
Fatah voters said they stuck to their party because Hamas is not offering an alternative. "Historically, Fatah has been the only group leading the Palestinian march," said Wissam Abu Ajina, 28, who voted in Beit Lahiya.
Others said Fatah must step aside.
"We've reached the worst. The most important thing now is change," said Raed Abu Hamam, 35, a construction worker in the Beach camp.
Nearly 20,000 local observers and 950 international monitors, led by former President Jimmy Carter, watched the vote. There were some allegations of fraud in the 1996 parliament election and the 2005 presidential election that brought Abbas to power, but international monitors said at the time the problems weren't widespread.
"Both the Palestinian elections in the past have been very good. They have been honest, fair and free of violence and I hope and believe we will have the same thing today," said Carter, who monitored voting in disputed east Jerusalem.
Hamas spokesman Mushir al-Masri, running for election in Beit Lahiya, said he expected the group to win the largest bloc of seats in parliament. Even then, Hamas has said it doesn't want to rule alone.
"We did not come to replace anyone or squeeze out anyone. We came to start a new phase in political partnership and unity," al-Masri said.
Fatah leaders have also predicted they'll get more than half the parliament seats. But if forced to form a coalition, Fatah prefers to govern with smaller parties and would invite Hamas only if left with no other choice.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said Fatah is ready to "stand behind" Hamas if the group wins.