Voter registration starts in Gaza, West Bank

Palestinian electoral officials on Monday began the long-overdue process of updating voter rolls in the West Bank and Gaza in a vital step towards eventual elections.
"The registration of voters is now beginning in the West Bank and Gaza. We hope accomplishing it will be the first step to ending the division," said Central Elections Commission chief Hanna Nasser in announcing the start of the week-long operation at a news conference in Gaza City.
Voter registration has been delayed for years due to a long-running dispute between the Hamas rulers of Gaza and its Fatah rival which dominates the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
It is a key part of preparations for legislative and presidential elections called for under the terms of a reconciliation deal signed in 2011 but which has never been implemented.
The electoral register has not been updated since the 2006 legislative elections, with Monday's registration drive expected to include another 720,000 new names -- 388,000 in the West Bank and 332,000 in Gaza, figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics showed.
"This is the first step towards ending a dispute which has so far lasted six years and people are eager to see the reunification between the two parts of Palestine," said Nasser.
"The registration process is the beginning of the democratic process of elections."
The week-long drive will involve 581 people who will register voter details at 256 schools across the Gaza Strip based upon lists provided by the interior ministry.
After that, it would take another four to six weeks to enter the newly-obtained data into the database after which the electoral rolls will be ready for use, the CEC said.
Updating the electoral register in Gaza removes a major hurdle blocking reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
"This is a moment of happiness because it means the reconciliation train has left the station," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.
"Hamas is committed to enabling the CEC to start the voter registration and we call on Fatah to stick to its commitments so we will be able to apply the reconciliation agreement."
The procedure had been due to begin in Gaza last year but the CEC's work was "temporarily" halted by Hamas as reconciliation efforts ran aground.
The CEC had reopened its Gaza offices in January 2012 but could not begin work on updating the voter lists without Hamas's permission, which it received in May.
After an initial period of recruitment, election officials had been due to start registering individual voters in early July but that month the process was suddenly halted by Hamas, which argued that various "obstacles" needed to be resolved before the CEC could continue its work.
Monday's breakthrough came about after Hamas and Fatah made a fresh attempt to implement the 2011 reconciliation deal that called for establishing an interim government of independents that would oversee preparations for legislative and presidential elections, including the updating of voter rolls in Gaza.
Over the weekend, Palestinian factions held two days of marathon reconciliation talks in Cairo which ended with a commitment to begin consultations over the formation of an interim government -- another issue which has bogged down reconciliation efforts.
Gaza's Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya said that although the Cairo talks did not break the logjam, efforts will continue.
"The national dialogue did not bring the breakthrough for which we hope but the talks in Cairo did not collapse," he said in a statement on Monday.
"We want reconciliation to help the Palestinian people and Palestinian issues."