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Low turnout as Israel elects Parliament

By around noon, the turnout was at its lowest in Israeli elections in at least three decades and stood at just under 22 per cent.
None | By Reuters, Jerusalem
UPDATED ON MAR 28, 2006 06:00 PM IST

Israelis made their way to the polls on Tuesday to elect a new parliament, with the lowest turnout in 30 years at midday.

Some 8,200 polling stations throughout the country opened at 7:00 am and are due to close at 10:00 pm.

By around noon, the turnout was at its lowest in Israeli parliamentary elections in at least three decades and stood at just under 22 per cent.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav has called on Israelis to go out and vote.

"Israel is facing important decisions and all citizens should be part of them," he told reporters as he cast his ballot in a Jerusalem polling station.

Acting Premier Ehud Olmert and his wife Aliza, earlier in the morning, were the first to vote at a school near their Jerusalem home.

His Kadima party, which plans a further withdrawal from the West Bank by 2010, while incorporating the main Jewish settlement blocks there into Israel, is tipped by polls to receive the most votes.

Polls published over the past four months have consistently put the Labour Party of former union leader Amir Peretz in second place.

The hardline Likud party of former premier and finance minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been predicted to come in third.

The voting took place amid tight security, with more than 22,000 police deployed at city entrances, in shopping malls and at other public locations deemed vulnerable.

Authorities said they had at least 14 intelligence warnings of attacks planned by Palestinian militants on election day.

Security forces were on the highest alert and the borders with the Gaza Strip and West Bank were sealed off.

Despite the tight measures, Palestinian militants killed two Israeli Bedouin shepherds when they fired a rocket from the eastern Gaza Strip into Israel.

The Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rocket fire in announcements to news agencies.

Israeli soldiers earlier shot dead a 32-year-old Palestinian militant near the northern West Bank city Jenin, Palestinian medics said.

They said an Israeli army unit entered the village of Yamoun, west of Jenin, to arrest militants and opened fire at a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah movement.

Over 5 million citizens are eligible to choose from 31 lists to make up the 120 legislators, who will sit in the next Knesset.

However, recent polls show that many do not intend to vote. Officials fear the turnout may be even lower than the 68 per cent recorded in 2003.

Voter turnout in Israel in previous elections has traditionally been around 80 per cent.

Israelis in the streets have expressed widespread apathy, as they are asked to go the polls for the fourth time in seven years.

With three legislators convicted in the past two months for illegal party fundraising and bribery, many Israelis have also cited corruption as the reason for their lack of faith in the leading parties.

Tuesday's elections are held some eight months ahead of schedule. Premier Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a brain haemorrhage in January, asked the president to dissolve the current Knesset four months ago after his coalition fell apart over Israel's historic August-September pullout from the Gaza Strip.

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