Palestinian Exit Polls Show Fatah Lead

Supporters of the ruling Fatah movement shout slogans on Salahaldin street outside a main polling station, near the ancient wall that surrounds Jerusalem's Old City, background, in Arab east Jerusalem, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. Palestinians voted in their first parliament election in a decade Wednesday, an historic vote integrating Islamic militants into Palestinian politics and determining the future of peacemaking with Israel.
Two Palestinian exit polls showed the ruling Fatah Party winning the most votes in Wednesday's parliamentary election, with the Islamic militant group Hamas finishing a strong second.

Fatah took 46.4 percent of the vote in Palestinian parliamentary elections, while the Islamic militant group Hamas took 39.5 percent, according to a Bir Zeit University exit poll.

That would translate into 63 seats for Fatah and 58 for Hamas in the 132-seat Palestinian legislature, pollsters said. A total of 8,000 voters in 232 polling stations were surveyed for the exit poll, which had a one-seat margin of error.

An earlier exit poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Public Opinion gave Fatah 42 percent of the vote and Hamas 35 percent.

Amid tight security and a sea of green and yellow flags, it was an historic vote integrating Islamic militants into Palestinian politics and determining the future of peacemaking with Israel.

Polling stations across the West Bank and Gaza Strip closed on time Wednesday, after 12 hours of voting, the Palestinian Central Election Commission announced.

Voter turnout for the first Palestinian parliamentary election in 10 years was 77.7 percent, the election commission said Wednesday.

A total of 1.3 million voters were eligible to cast ballots. Turnout was 81.7 percent in the Gaza Strip and 77 percent in the West Bank, the panel said. Some 3,000 voters cast ballots in east Jerusalem out of a total of 6,300 eligible voters.

Both the ruling Fatah Party and its challenger, the Islamic militant Hamas, said they were confident of victory, but said they would consider a coalition if no clear victor emerges.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he is ready to resume peace talks with Israel, even if Hamas joins his government after Wednesday's vote.

"We are ready to negotiate," Abbas told Israeli reporters who were in the West Bank city of Ramallah to cover the election. "We are partners with the Israelis. They don't have the right to choose their partner. But if they are seeking a Palestinian partner, this partner exists."

Most of the West considers Hamas a terrorist organization, reports CBS News correspondent David Hawkins but the group is popular because of its hard-line stance against Israel and because it runs

Palestinian voter Ibrahim Walid told CBS News correspondent Robert Berger (audio) he voted against Hamas because "They are religious. It shouldn't be a fanatic government." But a Hamas supporter said the group has changed from a militant group "to a political group."

"I don't see any Israeli government negotiating with Hamas," Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Dan Gillerman said on CBS News' Up To The Minute.

"I believe the Israelis should be aware that we think as highly or poorly of their political class as they think of our political class and factions," responded Afif Safieh, head of the PLO Mission to the U.S. "Yet, we don't issue vetoes that this party or that politician shouldn't be running for election because he doesn't meet with our approval."

Across the West Bank and Gaza, long lines formed outside polling stations, as Palestinians — given a real choice for the first time — were eager to cast their ballots for the 132 parliament seats up for grabs. In all, some 1.3 million voters were eligible and by early afternoon, more than 40 percent had voted, election officials said.

Even it doesn't win outright, Hamas is widely expected to make a strong showing that would place the Islamists — responsible for dozens of suicide bombings against Israel — squarely inside the Palestinian political system for the first time.