Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' ruling Fatah movement narrowly fended off a strong challenge by the Islamic militant group Hamas in local elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Friday, with Fatah winning 56 percent and Hamas 33 percent of the vote.
The corruption-tainted Fatah had feared defeat in Thursday's elections, but unofficial election results indicated the party won in 45 of 84 communities. However, Hamas established itself as a major political player, winning 23 of the contests, including in the three biggest towns - Qalqilyah, Rafah and Beit Lahia.
Final official results are expected only Sunday but Qalqilyah's next mayor will likely be from Hamas.
In the remaining 16 communities, neither side won a clear majority, with independents or smaller factions getting the most votes.
Both Hamas and Fatah disputed some of the results.
Hamas said it had actually won in 34 communities, with Hamas candidates in some towns running as independents for fear they would otherwise be targeted by Israel. Fatah demanded a recount in Rafah and the Bureij refugee camp, but did not explain why it suspected irregularities there.
"The results didn't live up to our expectations," said Kadoura Fares, a Fatah legislator and leader of the movement's younger activists, who have been clamoring for reform.
In Gaza City, senior Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said polling results showed that "people voted for the Islamic program, the program of resistance, of change and reform."
The results showed Hamas winning all 15 city council seats in the West Bank town of Qalqilyah. In Rafah, Hamas had 10 seats compared to five for Fatah. In Beit Lahia, another Gaza town, Hamas won seven seats compared to six for Fatah. In the West Bank town of Salfit, Fatah won 13 seats compared to two for Hamas.
In a sign of the militants' strength even in areas with large Christian populations, Hamas won five of the seven seats alloted to Muslims in the town of Bethlehem, which has a total of 15 seats. Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine will share the eight seats allocated to Christians.
"We are very honest and work much more than the others," said Khaled Saada, a Hamas candidate for Bethlehem town council, citing schools, clinics and orphanages run by his group.
Many voters were prepared to try Hamas after what they saw as a Fatah failure.
"Who will work for our future, for our children?" asked Maalik Salhab, a 24-year-old biology student who was wearing a green Hamas hat in Bethlehem and voted for the group on Thursday.
"If I see the outside world refusing to help us and then call Hamas terrorists, then I have the right to choose Hamas because they are doing all these things for me."
PFLP appeared to have won in the Christian towns of Beit Sahur and Beit Jala, exit polls show.
The win is, nevertheless, a major boost for Fatah, which had seen its popularity slip amid corruption allegations while support for Hamas was on the rise. It would also reassure Fatah ahead of a parliamentary vote due in July.
The election comes against the backdrop of a fragile cease-fire with Israel engineered by Abbas that has raised hopes of reviving Middle East peacemaking following over four years of violence.
Fatah supporters fired guns into the air in Gaza's border town of Rafah to celebrate the results, which are seen as a sign of confidence in political and security reforms by Abbas.
"The preliminary results assure the Palestinian people that Fatah continues to be the strongest and the most influential faction," said Jibril Rajoub, a security adviser to Abbas.
Hamas, which boycotted previous polls, posed an electoral challenge to Fatah after gaining street credibility for its fight against Israel, religious piety and charitable services.
Fatah feared it could get hammered by Hamas in upcoming parliamentary polls, which a senior official said could be delayed by disputes over election law changes some feel may aid Hamas.
The election had a festive air as the parties erected tents and greeted arriving voters, but the mood deteriorated after polls closed with supporters of both sides claiming victory.
About 20 masked men stormed two polling stations in the West Bank village of Attarah and destroyed three ballot boxes as votes were being tallied, an election official said.
More than 2,500 candidates vied for the council seats and turnout was high - 80 percent in Gaza and 70 percent in the West Bank, officials said. Some 400,000 Palestinians were eligible to vote.
Hamas had trounced Fatah in an earlier round of municipal voting in Gaza in January and made a strong showing in a similar West Bank poll in December, although Fatah got more seats. A final round is planned for later this year.
Hamas is anchoring the truce by militant groups but is also sworn to destroying Israel.
Hamas candidates on Thursday ran on the slogan "partners in blood, partners in decision-making". Some voters said they wanted power-sharing after decades of Fatah domination.
"I prefer that two factions rather than one be in charge for the sake of balance. People want the new council to end graft and get rid of unqualified officials," said Khalil al-Ashqar, 51, as he voted in the north Gaza town of Beit Lahia.
Abbas, who took office in January, has vowed reforms to weed out unaccountable, incompetent officials and establish law and order. Last month he forcibly retired loyalists of the late Yasser Arafat in a security service revamp.