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Polling stations were due to open early this morning in the territories, as Palestinians prepared to cast their votes in the presidential election that is expected to see Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) ushered in as chairman of the Palestinian Authority, replacing the late Yasser Arafat.

The election, the outcome of which has been universally expected since the list of candidates was drawn up, is being closely monitored by thousands of foreign and local observers.

Yesterday, Palestinian officials announced a parliamentary election would be held on July 17.

As international election experts fanned out to monitor the ballot, Israeli soldiers continued to inspect the identity cards and packages of Palestinians waiting in line at checkpoints at the entrances to West Bank cities, witnesses said.

However, Israel has maintained that it has made great efforts to facilitate the passage of the Palestinian voters, but warned also that it will not hesitate to clamp down in the event of violence against Israelis.

The warning was passed on to the Palestinians through the senior foreign election observer, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter.

"Major checkpoints are still in place; there was never any intention to remove them. It's obvious they must stay in place for security reasons. Terrorist threats still have to be dealt with," said an army spokesman.

For its part, Israel is already preparing for the renewal of negotiations with the new Palestinian leadership and a meeting between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian president-elect.

The Sharon government is regarding the election of Abu Mazen as a certainty, and the formula currently on the table is that "Palestinian prisoners will be released and additional restrictions will be lifted, in return for a [Palestinian] war against the Qassam rockets."

Israel has already prepared a list of steps that Abu Mazen can take against the launching of the rockets from the Gaza Strip, including the closing down by Palestinian forces of the workshops where the rockets are made, using intelligence information provided by Israel.

"Abu Mazen's test will first and foremost be the fight against the Qassams, and we will demand that he undertake very specific steps that are in his power to carry out; it will be the first subject on which we will meet," a senior government source said.

According to sources in the Prime Minister's Office, only after Abu Mazen shows his seriousness in fighting terrorism will it be possible to know the degree of the coordination with the Palestinian Authority that Israel will be willing to assume during the implementation of the disengagement plan.

`Problematic' voter registry

There are growing concerns that the official election register is "problematic" and may be used as cause for a multitude of legal challenges to the final results.

The concerns raised by senior Palestinian officials and foreign monitors center on the official number of eligible voters, which the register has as 1,757,756. The observers have noted that the register is not updated and may be bloated because some potential voters have been counted more than once.

The problem emerged when the official election register was completed during the final quarter of 2004. According to observers, the final register is described as being "professional" and up to "international standards." However, the figure of 1,092,407, voters was "too low" because of a relatively low turn-out for registration, stemming from numerous logistical and security reasons.

Three weeks ago, the Palestinian Legislative Council amended the election law and called for the inclusion of data from the population census. The concern was that the Palestinian election committee was only including 72 percent of all eligible voters. The process added a total of 662,883 additional voters to the new register.

However, the census was not only outdated but also inaccurate, again due to various logistical reasons that prevented an accurate count.

This in turn raised the possibility that at least several thousands of voters may be registered to vote more than once.

One of the observers said "the election process depends on the efficiency of the indelible ink with which all those that have cast their ballots will be marked in order to ensure that they only vote once. This ink, which often solves serious difficulties, has been proven to be a problematic element in other elections, such as those in Afghanistan and in Africa, because it can be wiped off in an hour or two."