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The polls indicate that neither party is likely to win a majority in the 132-member parliament, meaning that it is possible Hamas could form the next government.

However, senior pollster Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research said it is unlikely the party would get enough support from smaller parties and independent lists to forge a majority.

"This will give the small groups and the independents a big chance to decide (who forms a government)," Shikaki said. "It's possible that Hamas has a chance to form the next government."

A Bir Zeit University exit poll released earlier in the evening showed Fatah holding a slim lead over Hamas, with Fatah projected to win 63 seats and Hamas taking 58.

Official results of the poll, which which generated a high voter turnout, were not expected to be released before tomorrow.

The day passed without any violent incidents after the Palestinian police deployed 13,000 policemen to safeguard ballot boxes.

A few squabbles transpired between Fatah and Hamas activists in Hebron, and a mass skirmish took place between the two camps near Hebron. Other incidents occurred in Gaza City and Khan Yunis. On the other hand, at voting stations in Jenin and its surrounding villages, no armed men from any organization were seen and no incidents were registered.

Due to the long lines outside polling stations in East Jerusalem, the Palestinian Central Elections Committee extended the voting hours at the city's six post office branches.

Unofficial reports said the voting rate in East Jerusalem stood at about 50 percent, a much higher turnout than in the previous elections 10 years ago.

Polling stations throughout Palestinian Authority territories were closed at 7 P.M., and voter turnout reached 73 percent, according to the Elections Committee. Turnout in Gaza was 76.8 percent compared to 70.6 percent in the West Bank.

Hundreds of Fatah supporters celebrated in the streets last night after one exit poll showed their party ahead in the first Palestinian elections in a decade.

"Even though this is not the official result, we have to celebrate," said 22-year-old Omar Abdel Al Raouf, waving an assault rifle from his car window. "The winner is the Palestinian people."

The high turnout in Gaza, which tends to support Hamas, was apparently balanced by a substantial turnout in the West Bank, which has a much higher total vote and stronger backing for Fatah.

After voting in Ramallah, PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas praised his people for overcoming great obstacles to carry out the vote. "We are so happy with this election festival," Abbas said. "So far, it's going very well, and we hope it will keep going well until the end without any troubles."

Abbas added that he is ready to resume peace talks with Israel, even if Hamas joins his government following the legislative vote.

"We are ready to negotiate," Abbas told Israeli reporters who were in the West Bank city to cover the election. "We are partners with the Israelis. They don't have the right to choose their partner. But if they are seeking a Palestinian partner, this partner exists," he said.

Both Hamas and Fatah made efforts to bring as many voters as possible to the polls. In Hebron, for example, activists in both camps hired in advance all the taxis and buses there for that purpose. Hamas seemed to maintain an advantage there, since it enlisted all the large Hebron clans, and its activists distributed lists of candidates to voters outside the polls.

In Ramallah and El Bireh hundreds of activists from both camps were busy driving voters to the polling stations throughout the day.

In Gaza, Hamas seemed to have "conquered" entire regions, including Beit Hanun, Beit Lahia and the Jabalya refugee camp in the north, where activists flooded the polls.

Coordination between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority during yesterday's elections was largely successful, with only a few problems reported.

The IDF permitted voters and election observers to pass through West Bank checkpoints.

On a few occasions Palestinian policemen and security personnel were allowed to travel from the cities to outlying villages to break up fights between supporters of different parties.

Israel decided that it would make no official comment on the elections.

U.S. President George W. Bush said yesterday he would not deal with Hamas unless the group renounced its stance on Israel, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

"A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace," Bush said in an interview prior to the closing of the polls.

"And so you're getting a sense of how I'm going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is: Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you," Bush was quoted as saying.