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Voting at refugee camp has all the trappings of democracy

BALATA REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank—On one end of Schools Street the Islamist militant group Hamas, which is best known for suicide bombings in Israel, set up a different kind of war room Wednesday, in which activists crowded around a computer to help direct supporters to the right polling place.

A block away, members of the ruling Fatah party blasted political songs through a scratchy loudspeaker and took turns on the microphone imploring supporters to vote.

In between, hundreds of Palestinians dodged taxicabs covered in campaign posters, skirted young children selling sweet coffee in plastic cups and made their way through a political gantlet into a pair of polling places where they could make their decisions in relative peace.

Palestinians waged a peaceful fight Wednesday over the future of a possible independent state, voter by voter on a narrow road that leads into the largest refugee camp in the West Bank.

Gone were masked gunmen or attacks on polling places. No one kidnapped election monitors, and rival factions set aside their weapons as Palestinians voted in an important exercise of Middle Eastern democracy, probably one of the most important votes of their lives.

At one time, this refugee camp with more than 20,000 residents near the West Bank city of Nablus was solid Fatah territory. But after years of political drift and the death of their iconic leader, Yasser Arafat, the long-dominant party lost its core supporters, who now are forcing Fatah to share power for the first time.

Tamam Hashash entered the polling place set up in the United Nations-run Balata Basic Girls' School, dipped her left index finger in a bottle of blue ink and cast her votes for Hamas.

"I voted for Fatah in the past, but they didn't do anything for us," the 35-year-old said as she emerged from the room. "This time I feel like I have to vote for Hamas."

Many who came to the polls shared Hashash's frustration. Arafat's death 14 months ago shattered Fatah's image of invincibility and created a new opportunity for Hamas to challenge the dominant political order.

Even Fatah supporters offered only tepid support for their party Wednesday.

Amal Tantawi voted for Fatah, but reluctantly. The 39-year-old said Fatah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, had done little to help her after she lost two of her 11 children to Israeli attacks during the Palestinian uprising.

"Arafat was a big loss for every Palestinian," she said before slipping back into the political street fair. "No one can fill his shoes. But I voted for Abu Mazen to give him another chance to help us."

Throughout the day, young campaign aides flanked the entrances to the polling places and handed out last-minute literature. Women with lime-green Hamas caps covering their head scarves stood on one side, while Fatah supporters wearing trademark black-and-white kaffiyehs over their shoulders stood on the other.

Children wearing checkered headbands that bore the image of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, his shackled hands raised above his head in a victory sign, dodged between the legs of Hamas supporters who were waving the party's green flags.

As the sun began to set, dozens of mud-stained campaign fliers littered the road and campaign workers used the loudspeakers in the refugee camp to urge voters to take part before it was too late.

Then, with shadows falling across the street and a chill filling the air, the road began to clear as voters and weary campaign workers returned home to await the results.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

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