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Palestinians peacefully choose Arafat Huge turnout confirms its leader as president in first election; All Palestine smiles'; Intimidation alleged in East Jerusalem'

GAZA — GAZA -- Palestinians crowned their torturous struggle to be recognized as a people with their first elections yesterday, confirming Yasser Arafat as president and choosing a legislative council.

Voters came on donkey carts and in Mercedes automobiles, from shepherds' fields and bankers' offices, in tribal robes and modern suits, to solemnly mark their ballots in makeshift booths.

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The election faltered only in East Jerusalem, where an estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the registered voters went to polling places but found them ringed by Israeli soldiers and police taking photographs. In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestine Central Election Commission said, the turnout among the 1 million registered voters was between 70 percent and 90 percent.

Former President Jimmy Carter and other international elections observers accused Israel of intimidating Palestinians from voting Jerusalem, a city passionately claimed by both the Palestinians and Israelis. Israel said its forces were there to protect the voters. Balloting in the city was extended by three hours because of the controversy.

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Palestinians were voting to elect a government that will preside over Palestinian affairs in the pockets of "autonomous areas" from which Israel has withdrawn.

Palestinians hope their new government, still rough-hewn and its powers limited by Israel, will be a democracy that eventually will become a state.

"I am not ashamed to tell you, sir, that after I voted I went back to my home and cried in happiness," said a stately old tailor, Abed Kareem Sayed Daban, in Gaza. "Palestine was not on the map before. Today, it is on the map."

Complete returns to determine who among nearly 700 candidates won the 88 seats on the Palestinian Council are not expected until today. But elections officials said last night that a preliminary count of the separate balloting for president gave Mr. Arafat about 90 percent of the vote.

Mr. Arafat, who embodied the Palestinian struggle for three decades and turned from terrorism to diplomacy, had only one opponent, Samiha Khalil, 72.

'This is a new era'

"This is a new era," Mr. Arafat said after voting in Gaza. "This is the foundation of our Palestinian state."

Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres called the election a demonstration of the Palestinians' support for the peace process.

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Mr. Peres announced that all 450 members of the Palestinian National Council -- the parliament in exile whose members were once considered outlaws by Israel -- will be allowed back to the West Bank and Gaza. About 250 member still had been barred.

And he said the Palestinians must fulfill their pledge to repeal the provisions of the charter calling for Israel's destruction.

The Oslo agreement, a pledge of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, was signed in 1993 and provided for the elections.

Islamic groups who oppose the agreement mostly snubbed the elections and have vowed to continue attacks on Israel. The vote has been seen by world leaders as a means of strengthening Mr. Arafat's hand against the opposition.

Elections officials reported some confusion but few major problems despite hasty arrangements for the voting.

"Mostly technical problems -- missing names, missing registration cards -- things like that," said Awni Khatib, head of the elections commission in Hebron. "Despite all the adverse circumstances, Palestinians are coming out."

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The exception was East Jerusalem. Israel, jealously guarding its claim to sovereignty over the entire city, had negotiated an agreement with the Palestinian Authority that allowed only a small percentage of voters to cast their ballots within the municipality.

The others were to travel through several checkpoints to cast their ballots in the West Bank. Most did not bother, and buses organized by the Palestinians were mostly empty.

The five post offices designated as voting stations in East Jerusalem were surrounded by Israeli police and soldiers.

"I think it's a case of overkill," said Edward Abington, U.S. consul general for Jerusalem. "When you have a tiny post office room and you put 70 police and border guards around it, the voter feels he has to run a gantlet to get there."

Mr. Carter, observing the arrangements in East Jerusalem, protested the size of the police contingent. He also confronted a policeman filming the Palestinian voters and demanded he stop.

"There's some obvious intimidating actions being taken," he said.

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Shlomo Dror, spokesman for the Israeli coordinator for the elections, said the security contingent was reduced and the filming stopped after the complaints.

He contended that the security force had been welcomed by Palestinian officials because of threats by right-wing Jewish groups.

"The policemen weren't there to stop the Palestinians. They let the Palestinians through. The police were there to protect them," he said.

But Palestinians said they had to negotiate a series of roadblocks and police cordons.

"I tried four different streets to get here. Each time they told me it was closed -- I could not go," said Salah al-Fahouri, 42, a shoemaker. "Finally I started walking, and the army kept demanding my identity card. Then they said my wife could not come."

Israeli withdrawal protested

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Jewish right-wing groups that had threatened to disrupt the voting in East Jerusalem largely stayed away. About 4,000 demonstrated in Jewish West Jerusalem last night, protesting the Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian areas.

"There is no doubt, we will return to every place," said Rabbi

Haim Druckman, a former Israeli Knesset member. "We will return to Bethlehem and Nablus. The Land of Israel is ours."

An Israel police spokesman, Eric Bar-Chen, said there were 51 arrests of Jews and Arabs yesterday, mostly for minor offenses.

In the Gaza Strip, enthusiastic voters formed long lines outside the polling stations. There were few signs of the festivities and celebration that have marked previous stages of the peace process. But voters seemed serious about their new civic duty and pleased to be doing it.

"This is the first time all Palestine smiles," said Misbah al-Ajez, 70, emerging from the voting booth.

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At most of the polls in the Gaza Strip, women and men formed separate lines to keep Islamic custom. It appeared that far more men than women voted, and those women interviewed were reluctant to say they had favored the few women on the ballot.

"No, no," insisted Khadra Alwan, a stout Palestinian woman voting at the Jabaliya Refugee Camp. "Men should be over women. They are better." But yes, she conceded to the laughter of the crowd gathered around, she had told her husband how to vote.

Polls were less crowded in Hebron, a tense city where Israeli soldiers will not be withdrawn until March and sentiments are strong for the Islamic Hamas.

"A lot of people are not voting because the occupation is still here and nothing has changed," said Mohammed Ouawi, 35.

In the center of Hebron, shoe salesman Andres Zahadi, 47, contemplated the Israeli soldiers guarding the homes of Jewish settlers. Mr. Zahadi hailed a visitor he had last seen months ago, after a confrontation with Israeli soldiers, an incident in which Mr. Zahadi's teeth were smashed.

"You know, there's a real change here today," he said. "The soldiers came down and talked to the people, and even said, 'God bless.' Maybe there is some hope for change."


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