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The BBC's Jeremy Cooke in Jerusalem
"Many Israelis are voting for Ariel Sharon with serious reservations"
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Zalman Shovel, Sharon Advisor
"Until the results are in you can never be sanguine"
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Tuesday, 6 February, 2001, 15:49 GMT
Violence as Israelis go to polls
Palestinian protesters in Ramallah
Palestinians called for a 'day of rage'
Rioting broke out in the West Bank as Israelis voted in a prime ministerial election which could change the course of the Middle East peace process.

Right-wing challenger Ariel Sharon - who favours an uncompromising stance towards the Palestinians - has a near 20% lead in the opinion polls over the incumbent, Labour leader Ehud Barak.

Ariel Sharon
Sharon: Reaffirmed commitment to undivided Jerusalem
Turn-out was low, according to electoral officials, with about one in three Israelis casting ballots by mid-afternoon.

On what Palestinians called a "day of rage", demonstrators chanting ''Sharon is a butcher'' clashed with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Hebron.

Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets, injuring at least five Palestinians. Israel Radio said two soldiers were lightly wounded.

The BBC's Hilary Andersson, in the West Bank town of Ramallah, says the violence is a sign from the Palestinians that their uprising, or intifada, will continue whoever wins the election.

Towns sealed

Israel has stationed a security force of 15,000 throughout Israel and barred Palestinians from leaving their towns and cities.

The Israeli Government, under my leadership, will not hold negotiations under fire and will not grant any prize for violence

Ariel Sharon

Up to 400 people, mostly Palestinians, have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began last September.

On Monday in the Gaza Strip, an Israeli soldier was shot dead and a Palestinian boy wounded when troops opened fire on stone-throwers.

The two candidates differ hugely on the price of peace with the Palestinians.

Most Israelis have become disenchanted with Mr Barak as the violence continued with Israeli casualties and peace talks failed to produce an agreement despite some concessions.

Still optimistic

Mr Barak, once the country's most decorated soldier, remained defiant as he voted despite his poor showing in most opinion polls.

Ehud Barak after voting
Defiant despite polls
"People who were angry at me are now realising what is the real alternative, and they are coming back in tens of thousands every hour," he said.

The 72-year-old Mr Sharon, the leader of the Likud party and a former army general, has maintained a low profile during the election campaign and sought to soften the hawkish image he gained during violent showdowns with the Palestinians in the past.

During Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Mr Sharon was blamed for the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians by Israeli-backed militia in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

Settler support

His support for the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip seems to have gained him the solid support of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community.

Nearly 50% of the influential Russian immigrant community say they will side with him.

Israeli soldier voting
Serving soldiers cast their ballots on Monday, a day before the rest of Israel
"The Israeli government, under my leadership, will not hold negotiations under fire and will not grant any prize for violence," he said in a newspaper interview on Monday. "Only after the violence ends... will we resume negotiations."

Mr Sharon has not explained in detail how he intends to end the Palestinian uprising.

Peace process

Palestinian Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo warned of the danger he said a Sharon government would pose to the peace process.

''There is no danger like the danger of Sharon and all eyes have to be open to this,'' he told Voice of Palestine radio.

Burning election posters
Palestinians have promised a "day of rage"
He said a Sharon government ''will suppress the Palestinian people and turn its back on the peace process.''

Most of Israel's one million Arab citizens, who are traditionally Labour supporters, ignored Mr Barak's appeal for support.

All but an handful stayed away from the polls as part of boycott to protest the deaths of 13 Arab Israelis shot by police in October .

Israel's two main TV stations are preparing to declare the winner, based on exit polls, almost as soon as the polls close at 2000GMT.

It is the first time Israel has held a prime ministerial election without chosing members of parliament on the same day.

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See also:

04 Feb 01 | Middle East
Barak battles for Arab vote
06 Feb 01 | Media reports
Syrian press: Mid East peace in danger
01 Feb 01 | Middle East
Five dead in new Mid-East violence
06 Feb 01 | Middle East
In pictures: Israel votes
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