updated 1/23/2006 11:50:26 AM ET 2006-01-23T16:50:26

Palestinians plastered walls with posters, strung up banners and cruised the streets with loudspeakers Monday on the final day of campaigning before parliamentary elections.

Hamas militants have gained ground against Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah Party in their first legislative run. Polls show two movements tied for the lead with the election just two days away.

Across the West Bank and Gaza, Monday was the last day of early voting for 58,000 members of the security forces. They were asked to cast ballots early, in order to be free to secure polling stations during Wednesday’s election.

Hisham Assam, 39, a major, said he’s supporting Fatah because backing Hamas would be too much of a gamble. Fatah has been the torchbearer of the Palestinian cause for 40 years, but voter complaints of corruption and mismanagement have cost it support.

“With Fatah, at least we know what we are getting,” said Assam. “With Hamas, we are heading into the unknown.”

Hamas, which has carried out dozens of deadly suicide bombings against Israel in recent years, has played successfully on its image as incorruptible and as a provider of health, education and welfare services.

It has also argued that its attacks on Israelis, and not diplomacy, caused Israel to withdraw from Gaza over the summer.

Fatah has been unable to take control of lawless West Bank and Gaza streets.

Friction with Israel, U.S.
The participation of Hamas in the election has created friction with Israel and the U.S., but Abbas has said he hopes the group would tame its positions once it formally joins the political system. Hamas has not yet said whether it would join the government or hunker down in the opposition, where it would be under less pressure to abandon its anti-Israel ideology.

The U.S. advocates the spread of democratic elections in the Mideast, so it did not pressure Abbas to block Hamas from participating in the race. But because it considers Hamas to be a terrorist organization, “if members of Hamas become members of a Palestinian government, we will not deal with those individuals,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Stewart Tuttle said.

In a debate on the Lebanese TV station LBC, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, a top candidate for Fatah, that security forces broke several of his ribs during violent interrogation in a Palestinian lockup several years ago. A Fatah radio station hosted the son of a policeman killed in a shootout with Hamas gunmen last year.

Relatives of a deputy police chief gunned down several months ago pleaded with Palestinians to support the ruling party. “Don’t forget that Hamas is colored by my father’s blood,” the son of Ali Mawaki, Hassan, said on a Fatah-affiliated radio

Huzeifa Abu Fadel, 22, a Hamas campaign worker, said the group expects backing from police, who clash with Hamas gunmen more often than support them.

“In the end, we are looking out for what’s best for our people, for our country, and our brothers in the security forces,” he said. “We will see the green in the legislative council,” he said, referring to Hamas’ signature color.

Campaign slogans
In the West Bank city of Hebron, pictures of candidates covered one wall. Elsewhere, a Hamas poster declared, “With one hand we will build, with the other we will fight.” A Fatah poster countered that the group was “the first to launch the bullet and to resist the occupation, and the first to launch democracy.”

Pollsters have predicted that turnout will top 85 percent, with voters energized by having a first real alternative to Fatah.

Fatah, holding fast to its most potent symbols, has scheduled its closing rally Monday night at the Gaza City home of the iconic Palestinian leader, the late Yasser Arafat. On Monday, the party’s top candidate, Marwan Barghouti, was interviewed from the Israeli prison where he is serving five consecutive life sentences in connection with attacks that killed four Israelis and a Greek monk.

Hamas, for its part, invoked in a campaign song the names of two leaders slain in Israeli airstrikes, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. “For the blood of Rantisi and Yassin, vote for Hamas,” blared loudspeaker cars inching along Gaza City streets.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, said it would refrain from operations against Palestinian gunmen through Wednesday’s elections, except to stop militants who pose immediate threats.

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