An Israeli man casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on January 22, 2013
An Israeli man casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on January 22, 2013. The settler vote accounts only for about four percent of the Israeli electorate, but the bloc generally turns out en masse to cast their ballots, giving them outsized sway. © Gali Tibbon - AFP
An Israeli man casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on January 22, 2013
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Michael Blum, AFP
Last updated: January 22, 2013

Choices aplenty, as Israelis cast ballots

"This is a day of celebration!" beamed Noam Arnon as Hebron's settler community poured in to vote, confident Israel's next government will fight for their interests.

Although they number only 700 in the heart of a Palestinian city of 190,000, the Hebron settlers were hoping three of their number would win parliamentary seats as Israel voted in elections on Tuesday for the country's 19th Knesset.

Voters across Israel and in settlements peppering the occupied West Bank cast ballots at more than 10,000 polling stations, with turnout standing at 38.3 percent after seven hours of voting.

"Hebron is a good place to develop leaders for the people of Israel and to reinforce the essential values of the Jewish people," said Arnon, spokesman for the hardline community.

The settler vote accounts only for about four percent of the Israeli electorate, but the bloc generally turns out en masse to cast their ballots, giving them outsized sway.

Outside the polling station, several youngsters handed out stickers for the far-right religious nationalist Jewish Home party led by rising star Naftali Bennett, which featured two local settlers on its list.

Polls showed the party, which firmly opposes a Palestinian state and wants to annex 60 percent of the West Bank, would win up to 15 seats -- from three in 2009 -- making it the third largest party in parliament and a likely key partner in the new government.

One local running for office was Baruch Marzel, number three on the list of Otzma LeYisrael, an extremist rightwing party frequently accused of racism.

"Between (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's) Likud, Bennett and Otzma LeYisrael, we have some very good candidates but I prefer to vote for Marzel because I know him well," explained Daniel Hizmi, a teacher who has lived in Hebron's Jewish settlement for 30 years.

Aviva Neeman, 76, stood out among the voters here, the only woman wearing trousers in this conservative religious community.

A resident of Tel Aviv, she changed the address on her ID card just so she could cast her ballot in Hebron.

"Hebron is the land of my ancestors and standing by this community is important for me," she said, adding she voted for Likud because only Netanyahu "will be able to protect Hebron's best interests and that of the other Jewish settlements on our land."

Election day was a public holiday in Israel, and back in Neeman's native Tel Aviv, thousands packed the beaches or wandered along the seafront enjoying a snap of unseasonably warm weather.

A few blocks away, a steady stream of voters were coming and going from a polling centre at Tel Nordau school.

"People are looking for alternatives," said a man called Ohad who voted for the leftwing Meretz.

"It's not the United States where there is a winner and a loser. There's room in the middle," agreed his friend, Oz, who voted for the social justice-oriented Eretz Hadasha party.

Although polls have consistently given Netanyahu a clear lead over his rivals, many Jerusalem voters expressed a desire for change after four years of a Netanyahu government.

"I hope change will be made today. It is more important than ever. I'm voting for (Yair) Lapid because I believe in him," said 49-year-old Nitza Salman, referring to the leader of the new centrist Yesh Atid.

"If Netanyahu is prime minister, there needs to be people to block him, to calm him down."

"We are so tired of Netanyahu," said one 32-year-old teacher and mother of three, who refused to give her name.

"I think I'm going to go with Bennett. He is strong, and he is religious but not extreme. Young families like us can relate to him."

Drinking coffee in the city's German Colony area, Zeev David, 62, said he had voted for the centrist HaTnuah of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

"I hope her party will come out strong enough to have an influence. She has strong experience on the international level and that's what our country needs now," he told AFP.

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