High voter turnout has been reported in the first Palestinian legislative elections in a decade.
Hazim Ba'loosha of the Central Elections Committee said on Wednesday that things appeared to be running smoothly, with no serious violations to report, adding that there was a good voter turnout of 40.6% by 1pm (1100 GMT).
"Until now things are proceeding very well, with only a few minor incidents concerning campaigning in front of the polling centres. But inside voting is occurring in a very peaceful manner," Ba'loosha told Aljazeera.net.
Mathias Eick, the EU Observer Mission press officer, said:"We're still getting reports in from all the observers, but the initial impression is that most polling stations have observed that people are coming to polls and there seems to be quite a festive atmosphere ... we'll see as the day progresses."
However, Israeli occupation forces obstructed polling centres in the Old City in East Jerusalem, so people had to cast their votes in centres elsewhere, election officials said.
Hamas volunteers help residents
locate their designated centres
More than a thousand polling stations opened throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip at 7am on Wednesday as 1.3 million eligible voters began casting their ballots.
With the government declaring a public holiday, the atmosphere was excited, tinged with some uncertainty and tension.
At some polling stations, Fatah and Hamas supporters stood in an orderly fashion, forming separate lines to greet voters and hand out last-minute campaign literature and cards listing the number and symbol of their various candidates.
1.3 million registered, eligible voters
1008 polling stations, 254 in Gaza, 754 in the West Bank
Polling hours: 7am to 7pm (0500 GMT to 1700 GMT)
Exit polls expected an hour after voting ends
132 parliamentary seats up for grabs, 66 by proportional representation and 66 by a first-past-the-post system in districts
728 candidates competing, 414 in districts and 314 on party slates
343 foreign and 17,268 local observers to monitor polls
11 parties, the five main ones being: Fatah, Reform and Change (Hamas), Third Way, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Independent Palestine
Source: Palestinian Central Election Commission.
Other stations were besieged with hundreds of young men and women wearing green baseball caps for Hamas or the kaffiya (Palestinian headdress) for Fatah, and in some instances in Gaza City, election officials had to intervene when voters complained of being harassed.
Buses and other vehicles rented by the various parties and candidates transported voters from rural areas to polling stations.
In Gaza, Hamas volunteers had set up kiosks with internet access in front of each polling station to help residents find the centre at which they were registered to vote, via the Central Election Committee's website.
Vehicles plastered with campaign posters and party flags, and others decorated with carnations as they would be in a wedding, could be seen cruising throughout the Gaza Strip blaring out music in support of various parties.
On her way out of the voting booth, Ka'inat Dogmosh, 30, a researcher, who voted for Hamas's Change and Reform list in Gaza's al-Ruqaya School, expressed fear.
"On this day I am very afraid - I fear that the result will come out that Hamas wins, and that there will be problems," she said.
"I voted for Hamas because of my love for them as an organisation, because they helped give me an education and helped me become closer to God. I hope that everything will be calm and this will be a wedding to celebrate and that Hamas stands up to the lawlessness."
Dogmosh said her family told her to vote for Fatah, but she decided not to. "I realised no one will see who I vote for in there," she said.
Voters got indelible ink marks to
prevent repeat voting
Others, like Wasim Hilew, a 28-year-old businessman, cast mixed ballots, arguing that both parties had something to offer.
"I voted for some Fatah and some Hamas candidates," he said. "I wanted to give both of them a shot."
The election runs on two systems, half the 132 seats are by proportional representation through party lists and half by direct first-past-the-post races in 16 districts.
Hilew said: "I feel very good for this day because the last time elections occurred was 10 years ago and everybody wants change. They need to feel freedom more than before.
"We are hoping the future will be better. I want to see the [border] crossings open, I have work in the West Bank but I cannot travel there.
"But I'm worried that a parliament that includes Hamas will have difficulty resuming negotiations and make our relations with the US and the EU worse."
Calm and peace
In the Hebron region, there was a high turnout, especially in the countryside where voting was taking place in schools and community centres.
In Dura, 10km southwest of Hebron, voters were waiting outside polling stations before they opened at 7am.
"Until now things are proceeding very well, with only a few minor incidents concerning campaigning in front of the polling centres. But inside voting is occurring in a very peaceful manner"
Central Elections Committee
Sergeant Muhammad al-Sous, who was guarding the polling station at the Dar el-Salam primary school, said: "Thank God, everything is going as smoothly and as quietly as we hope. There is no problem whatsoever, and as you see, people are casting their ballots in an atmosphere of calm and peace."
About 13,000 police officers are helping to ensure that calm and peace at the 1008 polling stations, according to the interior ministry.
Early exit polls are expected to appear an hour after the ballot boxes close. The announcement of official results will take a few days.