Hamas scores stunning win - but what happens now?

The militant Islamic faction Hamas sent shock waves through Israel, Western capitals and its own ranks yesterday by sweeping to an overall parliamentary majority, making it the pivotal force in Palestinian politics.

Securing 76 of the 132 seats in the parliament whose existence it opposed for almost a decade, Hamas's unexpectedly overwhelming victory challenged almost every assumption about the Middle East and plunged the Israel-Palestinian conflict into another period of unpredictability.

The landslide abruptly ended the dominance of the Palestinian Authority (PA) by Fatah, the nationalist movement founded more than 35 years ago by Yasser Arafat, which took only 43 seats after the first Palestinian Legislative Council elections for a decade. Hamas, which has been on ceasefire for more than a year but has been responsible for more than 400 deaths of Israeli civilians in some 58 suicide bombings during the past five years, immediately said it would try to form a unity coalition with the defeated Fatah, which was dogged during the election by splits and a reputation for corruption and inefficiency.

As some Western governments began a cautious assessment of whether Hamas's triumph was a menacing new threat to the region's stability or the beginning of a possible conversion from armed militancy to mainstream politics, the acting Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said that Israel would not negotiate with any Palestinian government that included Hamas members.

"The state of Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if even part of it is an armed terrorist organisation calling for the destruction of the state of Israel," he said, in a statement released last night after a three-hour emergency cabinet meeting with senior ministers.

Ismail Haniyeh, a leading Hamas candidate, told the BBC: "Don't be afraid. Hamas is an aware and mature movement ... which is politically open in the Palestinian arena, and to its Arab and Islamic hinterland, and similarly open to the international arena."

Hamas asked for immediate coalition talks to be convened by the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. The faction's leader in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, said the call was being made "because we are strong. If they [Fatah] are not willing we will run it alone and we will achieve success."

Mr Abbas has not yet decided how closely to work with the group, but has warned he might resign if he cannot pursue a peace agenda. His Fatah Party last night decided not to join a Hamas government, according to a senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Ziad Abu Amr, an independent PLC member close to Mr Abbas, but who was backed by Hamas, said: "Fatah may be reluctant now because they are hurt and angry but they will come round."

As Ahmad Qureia, the Palestinian Prime Minister, and the cabinet resigned in response to the defeat, gunfire broke out between Fatah supporters and Hamas activists in Ramallah. More ominously, Israeli soldiers shot dead a 9-year-old Palestinian girl in the Gaza Strip near the border with Israel. They later claimed she was carrying a large bag and ignored warning shots.

It is clear that the huge vote for Hamas was not an endorsement for its aspiration to eliminate Israel, much less for a swift return to armed conflict and suicide bombings. Voters in Gaza cited the ineffectiveness and perceived corruption of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority it has run for 10 years as the main reason for voting Hamas.

Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster who has charted Hamas's phenomenal rise in popularity, wrote this week that it could not be interpreted as support for "its extremist views". He said: "Polls I have carried out over the past 13 years show that the Palestinians have never been as moderate as they are today."

Hamas, which has largely abided by the truce it negotiated with Mr Abbas, focused its campaign on internal Palestinian issues; and it was largely successful in persuading voters to do the same. It was boosted by its reputation for equitable distribution of charitable funds with the poor, in contrast to what many Palestinians see as the misdirection by the PA of international donations to Gaza and the West Bank.

One of the many paradoxes in this election result is that in voting for a faction that built its credibility on armed conflict with Israel, Palestinian electors were actually showing they thought that not all their suffering could be laid at the door of the occupier; that better, cleaner, Palestinian governance could help too.

But external factors still played a part. The polls also show that, as well as the deep splits within Fatah, waning hopes of a credible peace process undermined it. As Mr Shikaki also wrote: "Fatah, which did not succeed in leading to the evacuation of a single settlement, while the violence led by Hamas, as seen by the Palestinian public, led to the disengagement from Gaza." And here Palestinian officials say Mr Abbas was let down not only by Israel but also the international community. Even the relatively minimal agreement to ease the access of goods and people between post-disengagement Gaza and Israel and the West Bank, brokered by Condoleezza Rice, has been far from implemented. In blocking passage from Gaza and temporarily closing the Karni crossing, Israel was no doubt acting in what it saw, however narrowly, as its own security interests. That the US and the EU let it happen without a breath of criticism was hardly helpful to Mr Abbas or Fatah.

In the 1990s, the head of the Shin Bet is supposed to have warned Israeli ministers that "whoever does not want Arafat gets Hamas". Substitute Mr Abbas for Arafat, and it's a message the West, and Israel, would have done well to remember.

The dilemma for Hamas is how it accepts political responsibility that it can hardly run away from after a scale of victory it did not itself anticipate. How, for example, does it live with, much less pay, more than 100,000 PA employees mostly loyal to Fatah? The dilemma for the West is that if it fulfils its threats to cut funds from a Hamas-dominated PA it may further destabilise the region. The nightmare scenario is that Hamas is forced to turn to Iran for help, whose pariah President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met Hamas's exiled leader Khaled Mashaal in Damascus last week.

The conventional wisdom in those capitals, of course, will be that Hamas's victory - in an election rightly commended as clean by international observers - is an unmitigated disaster. It could precipitate a swing to the right in Israeli politics, which would carry Benjamin Netanyahu to victory. But the Israeli public's clear preference for unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, envisaged by the centre, may survive even this momentous shock.

Mr Netanyahu said the result of the election was the creation of " Hamastan" and blamed Gaza disengagement for Hamas's victory.

Yet other scenarios are possible. Hamas's eagerness to form a coalition with Fatah does not suggest that it is immune to the possibility of negotiations.

Among serious voices in Israel questioning whether Hamas's electoral success did not have a positive side, the political scientist Professor Yaron Ezrahi suggested a scenario in which Hamas moderates its platform - as the PLO eventually did - as a price for adopting politics. Pointing out that an agreement made with Hamas would have more credibility because of "its power over the [Palestinian] street, he said: "Because it has the opportunity to secure an Arab Muslim state it could be that Hamas will be a spearhead of a shift from violence to moderation and politics because it can show such a course makes gains."

Ahead of an election no Israeli politician is likely to suggest such a benign scenario, with global as well as regional implications. But the fact that Hamas's victory can be talked of even in Israel as both hopeful and catastrophic is a sign of just how unpredictable is the tectonic shift triggered by one million Palestinians in the polling stations on Tuesday.

'People are looking for a change'

* Ilias Jubran, 60, a Christian who runs an alcohol wholesale company in Ramallah: "I do not know what to do. We will have to emigrate. It is against Hamas's principles [to allow alcohol]."

* Muhammad Rahal, 40, a militant in the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, who is wanted by Israel: "The Palestinian people are punishing Fatah because Fatah did not honour those who fought for it.Moderation does not bring them any result and they think extremism might bring some hope."

Tayseer Nasrallah, 44, member of the Palestine National Council and Fatah leader in Nablus: "This is an earthquake. People are looking for a change. Fatah is paying the price for its negligence of its own people."

* Nuha, 33, sitting with her mother and four children in a Ramallah restaurant: "Of course I voted for Hamas. Why not try them? We need a change."

* Asaad Ghazali, a plumber from East Jerusalem: "This is a reaction to the failure of the Palestinian Authority. It is not a reflection of people's convictions. Hamas is not better than Fatah. Hamas has no programme."

World opinion

ISRAEL

Israel will not deal with Hamas until it renounces violence and its commitment to eliminating the Jewish state. Senior figures from President Moshe Katsav to Shimon Peres, pictured, have said if Hamas fulfilled these conditions, they would be willing to negotiate with it. But President Katsav said Hamas was a dangerous element "which has continued to preach for terrorism", and it was unjustified for armed groups to take part in the vote. Mr Peres said Hamas would have to run the Palestinian Authority with reduced international aid.

EUROPEAN UNION

European leaders urged Hamas to renounce violence and recognise Israel's right to exist, or risk international isolation and the loss ofaid. The Hamas victory presents acute problems for the EU. The group's military wing is regarded as a terrorist organisation. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, pictured, said: "Hamas has to understand that with democracy goes renunciation of violence. It is up to Hamas to choose." The EU member states and the European Commission spend about £340m each year in the region.

UNITED STATES

Hamas's victory has brought into conflict the two guiding principles of President George Bush, right, in his approach to the Middle East: his refusal to countenance terrorism, and his desire to promote democracy across the region. Mr Bush yesterday left the door open to working with Hamas, on condition that it forswore terrorism and formally acknowledged Israel's right to exist. He hailed the results as "a wake-up call" to the Palestinian leadership and proof that "the people weren't happy with the status quo".

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