The third phase of local elections for over 1000 council seats in the occupied West Bank on Thursday is also the first Palestinian ballot since Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation.

Election monitors said turnout was high in several West Bank villages, with Palestinians rushing to voting centres decorated with posters and national flags as soon as they opened at 7am. Armed police stood guard.

Wail al-Shyukhi, Aljazeera's correspondent in the town of Bait Ummar, near Hebron, reports that voting is under way despite the obstacles placed by the Israelis, such as the closure of some roads leading to polling centres and the arrest of several candidates and campaign organisers.

Israeli search

An Israeli military checkpoint has been set up in Hebron near al-Dhahiriya town in what Palestinians see as an attempt to prevent voters from reaching the town, al-Shyukhi said.

Palestinians are being thoroughly searched at this checkpoint, making it difficult for them to pass.

Israeli security checks make it
difficult for voters to travel

As for Palestinian police and security forces, they have been deployed near polling centres, al-Shyukhi said.

President Mahmoud Abbas's dominant Fatah movement faces stiff competition from rival Hamas, whose charity networks, lack of corruption, and resistance operations have won many Palestinian hearts during five years of fighting with Israel.

Hamas made a strong showing in two earlier phases of municipal voting.

Political implications

"Particularly after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the run-up to legislative elections, the municipal results will have important political implications," Jamal al-Shobaki, head of the Higher Commission for Local Elections, told Reuters.

Polls give Hamas about 30% support, pointing to big gains when it takes part in 25 January parliamentary elections.

Thursday's vote takes place in
the shadow of a rise in violence

Hamas boycotted the only previous legislative vote in 1996 in protest at interim peace accords with Israel.

Although local concerns are often the deciding factor for Palestinian municipal ballots, Thursday's vote takes place in the shadow of the worst violence since Israel finished evacuating troops and settlers from Gaza on 12 September.

Bloodshed surged after the Islamic group accused Israel of being behind an explosion that killed 17 people at one of its rallies in Gaza and fired a salvo of rockets at Israel.

Israel denied responsibility and Abbas blamed Hamas, saying the blast was caused by its own mishandling of explosives.

Air offensive

In retaliation for the rocket strikes, Israel launched an air offensive on Gaza and arrested hundreds of suspected fighters in the West Bank. Three fighters were shot dead during a raid in the city of Jenin on Thursday.

Hamas accused Israel of hobbling its chances in the local elections with the arrests. But Shobaki, who said 15 municipal candidates and dozens of election monitors and coordinators were among those detained, anticipated little impact.

"Particularly after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and the run-up to legislative elections, the municipal results will have important political implications"

Jamal al-Shobaki,
head, Higher Commission for Local Elections

"Some 100 or 200 votes will not affect the entire voting process," Shobaki said.

The prospect of an Islamist legislative sweep has raised eyebrows in Israel and abroad. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel would not help the Palestinians in facilitating votes in the West Bank in January if Hamas runs without first disarming.

Hamas insists it will keep its weapons.

Some 2478 candidates vied on Thursday for 1018 seats. More than 144,000 voters will pick from faction lists rather than individual candidates, as in the first phase. Polls close at 7pm. Complete results could take days to emerge.

Blaming a lack of time to prepare, election officials said voting for remaining councils in the Gaza Strip and some parts of the West Bank was put off until December. The municipal elections are the first for 28 years.