Thousands of voters overwhelmed polling stations in scattered West Bank towns and villages yesterday as Palestinians enthusiastically voted in their first local elections in nearly...

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JERICHO, West Bank — Thousands of voters overwhelmed polling stations in scattered West Bank towns and villages yesterday as Palestinians enthusiastically voted in their first local elections in nearly three decades.

The polls gave Palestinians in 26 small communities a democratic dry run ahead of Jan. 9 elections to replace Yasser Arafat, who died last month, as head of the Palestinian Authority. They also marked the first head-to-head electoral matchup between the ruling Fatah Party and the Islamic Hamas organization.

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However, many voters said they were not interested in party affiliations, preferring to vote on local issues and, in some cases, clan loyalties.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia praised the vote as “the first step toward the establishment of the Palestinian state.”

No major Palestinian cities participated. Voting in hundreds of other cities, towns and villages is expected next year.

Election officials said they were stunned by the flood of voters and saw it as a sign of Palestinians’ hunger for democracy. Some candidates handed out sandwiches and juice to people waiting in the long lines. Turnout could exceed 90 percent of the 150,000 Palestinians eligible to vote, officials said.

The elections are to replace the mayors and officials who were appointed in the past three decades, first by the Israeli military and later by the Palestinian Authority.

The 26 communities chosen for the first round are Fatah strongholds, said Ali Jarbawi, former head of the Central Elections Commission.

The vote, with about 800 candidates vying for 360 local council seats, marked the first time Fatah and Hamas competed in elections. Hamas, which is pledged to Israel’s destruction, boycotted the 1996 general election won by Arafat as a byproduct of interim peace deals with Israel.

Hamas is boycotting next month’s presidential election but plans to field candidates in future parliamentary and local elections.

In related developments

Israel, which receives $3 billion a year in U.S. aid, may seek more money next year to bolster border security and overhaul checkpoints as part of a plan to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, sources familiar with the talks said yesterday. Any additional money for Israel would come on top of increased U.S. aid for the Palestinian Authority after January elections to replace long-time president Yasser Arafat. U.S. aid for the Palestinians would be tied to progress made in stopping the violence and carrying out reforms, officials said.

Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the issue in recent talks with U.S. officials. The White House has yet to commit to providing extra aid to Israel, and Israel has yet to ask, officials said.

Key U.S. lawmakers are wary of providing direct aid to the Palestinians. Bush provided $20 million to the Palestinian Authority earlier this month, on condition that the money be used to pay Israeli utility bills.

An Israeli antiquities collector who claimed he discovered the burial box of Jesus’ brother James will be charged with forgery next week, a Justice Ministry spokesman said yesterday.

The indictment against Oded Golan contained several charges, including forgery. Golan, who said he is innocent, came to prominence after the October 2002 disclosure of the existence of an ancient ossuary, or burial box, bearing the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” At the time, the find was touted as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the modern era, demonstrating a physical connection between the modern world and the Bible.

However, the Antiquities Authority concluded the inscription on the 20-inch by 11-inch burial container was a forgery, saying the letters were cut through the ancient patina covering the box.

A documentary broadcast on Israeli TV earlier this year described Golan as a talented con man who made millions of dollars selling forged antiquities to gullible buyers around the world.