RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Thousands of Palestinian security personnel cast the first ballots for legislative elections Saturday, in advance voting meant to prevent violence on election day later this week.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been plagued by election-related chaos and other lawlessness in recent months. Security forces will take up positions at polling stations during Wednesday's election to ensure order.
The special voting for some 59,000 security personnel, running through Monday, was meant to give the forces time to prepare for the deployment.
"Today is the beginning of the democratic process which we are very proud of," said Palestinian Preventive Security Chief Rashid Abu Shbak, who voted in Gaza's Jabaliya refugee camp.
"Everything is moving in a smooth and quiet way and we hope the next two days will occur in the same atmosphere and that Jan. 25 will be a national celebration for Palestinian democracy," he said.
The ruling Fatah Party is facing a stiff challenge from the Islamic group Hamas, which is participating in a legislative vote for the first time. Voters will choose 132 lawmakers, half chosen from national lists and half selected in local district races.
A poll released Saturday gave Fatah a lead of 42 percent to 35 percent over Hamas in the national voting. But the survey found Hamas leading in the largest districts, meaning it could win more seats in parliament.
Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, hopes to resume peace talks with the Palestinians after Israeli elections in March. But Israel refuses to deal with Hamas until it disarms and renounces violence.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he hopes Hamas will moderate its positions once it formally joins the political system.
Olmert took over from Ariel Sharon, who suffered a stroke Jan. 4 and is in a coma. A hospital spokesman said Sharon remained in critical but stable condition and was still hooked up to a respirator.
Turnout was heavy Saturday, with 50 percent of eligible voters casting ballots, officials said. There were no reports of violence.
Security forces, some in civilian clothes and others in uniform, waited patiently to vote at polling stations throughout Gaza and the West Bank. In the West Bank city of Nablus, hundreds of officers lined up to vote.
To prevent fraud, voters marked their fingers with special ink to prevent double voting. Observers from local human rights groups monitored the voting.
"I came to vote because it's a national duty," said Hisham Sakallah, 39, a member of the elite Force 17 security unit who voted at a Gaza City schoolhouse. "I hope the election will pass smoothly so we can send a civilized image to the world about our people and about our respect for democracy."
Outside the station, a small group of Hamas activists wearing the group's trademark green baseball caps and bandannas greeted voters. There were no Fatah activists in sight.
Hamas has accused security commanders of ordering their forces to vote for Fatah -- an allegation confirmed by some low-level officers.
Fatah activists have said Hamas will fire or punish security officers who do not back the Islamic group. Hamas' No. 1 candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, urged voters "not to listen or pay attention to the rumors."
Although best-known for its suicide bombings and commitment to destroy Israel, Hamas has run a well-organized campaign focusing on internal Palestinian issues. It has promised improved public services, clean government and an end to the chaos.
In contrast, Fatah has been riven by disarray, infighting and widespread perceptions of corruption. Reflecting the disarray, the leader of a Fatah-linked militia in the West Bank town of Jenin participated in Saturday's voting because his group was accepted into the local police force, even though it refuses to disband.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a statement Saturday calling the election "an important milestone."