HAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip (AP) – The ruling Fatah Party canceled its primary in Gaza at the end of a full day of voting yesterday after gunmen disrupted at least a dozen polling places, firing in the air and stealing some ballot boxes.

Sarah Royce
A masked Palestinian gunman looks on after armed militants closed a polling station during the Fatah movement primaries in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

The violence underscored Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ inability to maintain order in the Gaza Strip, or even in his own party, as Fatah tries to fight off a strong challenge from the Islamic Hamas group in the Jan. 25 parliamentary elections.

The vote yesterday was part of the first-ever primary held by Fatah, a democratic reform considered crucial to removing the taint of corruption from the party. Many young Fatah activists, long frozen out of power by entrenched party leaders, have insisted that transparent primaries – rather than secret back-room negotiations – determine the party’s legislative slate.

Even before the voting began yesterday, problems emerged. Technical glitches forced voting in the southern Gaza town of Rafah and areas of central Gaza to be postponed until tomorrow, Fatah officials said.

At some of the roughly 190 Fatah polling stations that did open across Gaza, many voters found their names were not on registration lists or that they had been mistakenly registered at the wrong station. Fatah officials said it was their first experience holding a primary and that they had only a short amount of time to compile lists of the 200,000 eligible voters in Gaza.

Some militants lost patience.

In one station in a village in eastern Khan Younis, a group of about 15 Fatah gunmen, angry at not finding their names on the list, began shooting in the air, witnesses said. Officials then closed the polling place for about 45 minutes. Polling stations in the towns of Beit Hanoun and Deir el-Balah were also closed after similar incidents.

Elsewhere, Fatah gunmen barged into a polling station in the Sheik Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, took its 16 ballot boxes into a yard, poured gasoline over several of them and set them on fire, witnesses said.

At least a dozen polling stations were closed because of problems with gunmen.

Fatah officials held an emergency meeting yesterday afternoon and decided to cancel the primary, nullifying the votes already cast, according to a party statement.

The primary would have to be rescheduled, possibly for Friday, Fatah spokesman Deab Allouh said, adding that the party’s candidates would have to be chosen by Dec. 3. It was unclear how officials could ensure that a new round of voting would go any smoother.

Abbas has had trouble bringing order to the Gaza Strip since Israel withdrew from the territory in September.

A longtime Fatah leader in Gaza, Abdel Aziz Shahin, called on the Fatah Central Committee to take responsibility for the voting chaos and resign. “Fatah is like a dinosaur, and the head of this dinosaur is not aware of the rest of the body,” he said.

Hassan al-Kashef, a political columnist with the Palestinian Al Hayat Jedideh newspaper, blamed Fatah for yesterday’s violence, which he described as “a shock and a wake-up call” that could have damaging consequences for the party.

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