Hamas shocks world with clear victory

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The Independent Online

The Islamic Hamas won a clear majority in parliamentary elections as Palestinian voters rejected the longtime rule of the Fatah Party, throwing the future of Middle East peacemaking into question, officials from both major parties said today.

Palestinian leaders, stunned by the militant group's sweeping victory, huddled to determine the shape of a new government as world leaders insisted Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum said there could be no relations with a group that has been responsible for scores of deadly attacks against Israelis and is listed as a terror organization by the United States and the European Union.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Cabinet resigned today, even before the official results were announced, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was to ask Hamas to form the next government.

The top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, told Abbas his group is ready for a political partnership, Hamas said.

And in a first sign of pragmatism, Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas official, said the group would extend its year-old truce if Israel reciprocates. "If not, then I think we will have no option but to protect our people and our land," he said.

The US President George Bush said today that the United States will not deal with Palestinian leaders who dispute Israel's right to exist. "If your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you're not a partner in peace, and we're interested in peace," Bush said.

Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat said the party does not want to join a Hamas government. "We will be a loyal opposition and rebuild the party," Erekat said, after meeting with Abbas. But Nabil Shaath, another senior Fatah lawmaker, said the party's leadership would make a decision later today.

Abbas was elected separately a year ago and remains president. However, the Palestinian leader has said he would resign if he could no longer pursue his peace agenda. The Cabinet and legislature must approve any major initiative by Abbas, giving Hamas tremendous influence over peace moves.

Aides said he planned a major speech today night, after final results are announced by the Central Election Commission. Hamas, citing final results leaked to the group, said it won 75 seats in the 132-member parliament.

Hamas supporters streamed into the streets to celebrate. In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, supporters shot in the air and handed out candy. Others honked horns and waved Hamas flags from car windows.

Supporters of the two main parties briefly scuffled in the West Bank town of Ramallah after Hamas supporters raised their party's green flag over the Palestinian parliament. The two sides threw stones at each other, breaking windows in the building, as a small group of Fatah supporters tried to lower the banner. The crowd of about 3,000 Hamas backers cheered and whistled as activists on the roof raised the flag again.

Leaders around the world were shocked by Hamas' victory, with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi reportedly calling it a "very, very, very bad result," and others insisting Hamas give up violence and recognize Israel's right to exist.

"You cannot have one foot in politics and another in terror," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed."

Hamas capitalized on widespread discontent with years of Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness. Much of its campaign focused on internal Palestinian issues, while playing down the conflict with Israel.

Before the election, Hamas had suggested it would be content as a junior partner in the next government, thus avoiding a decision on its relationship with Israel.

Throughout the campaign, leaders sent mixed signals, hinting they could be open to some sort of accommodation with Israel. Its apparent victory will now force it to take a clearer position on key issues, including whether to abandon its violent ideology.

Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas candidate who won election in the northern Gaza Strip, said peace talks and recognition of Israel are "not on our agenda" but the group is ready for a partnership — presumably with Abbas.

Senior Israeli security officials gathered today to discuss the results and acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scheduled talks with senior officials.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, condemned the vote. "Today Hamastan was formed," he said. Labor Party politician Ami Ayalon said Israel might have to change the route of its West Bank security barrier to take Hamas' victory into account.

Hamas officials tried to reassure the world of its intentions.

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

Palestinian election officials confirmed early today that Hamas had won a large majority of the seats up for grabs in electoral districts in the West Bank and Gaza. It was the first time Hamas has contested a parliamentary vote.

Half the seats in yesterday's parliament vote were chosen on a national list and the other half by districts. While the national voting appeared to be close, election officials said Hamas had won a large majority in the district races. Hamas apparently took advantage of divisions in Fatah; the long-ruling party fielded multiple candidates in many districts, splitting the Fatah vote.

Initial exit polls had forecast a slight edge for Fatah, but on today morning, Hamas officials said the group had won up to 75 seats — giving it a solid majority in the 132-member parliament. Fatah officials conceded Hamas had won at least 70 seats, or enough to rule alone.

Palestinian pollsters were at a loss to explain the discrepancy between the exit polls and the reality. It may have been partly due to a reluctance by some voters to admit to pollsters that they were abandoning the ruling party.

The errors appeared especially glaring in the district races, where smaller numbers of voters were polled.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who apparently was re-elected on a moderate platform, said the Hamas victory was a dramatic turning point. She said she is concerned the militants will now impose their fundamentalist social agenda and lead the Palestinians into international isolation.

She said Fatah's corruption, Israel's tough measures and international indifference to the plight of the Palestinians were to blame for Hamas' strong showing.

Washington miscalculated in pushing for the vote, as part of its pro-democracy campaign in the Arab world, she said. "The Americans insisted on having the election now, so they have to respect the results of the election, as we all do," she said.

Israel has repeatedly asked Abbas to force Hamas and other militant groups to disarm but Abbas has refused, warning such an act could cause civil war. Hamas has committed dozens of suicide bombings against Israel.

Turnout for yesterday's vote was heavy, with nearly 78 percent of 1.3 million eligible voters casting ballots. The polling stations were heavily guarded, and there were no reports of major violence.

International observers, led by the former US President Jimmy Carter and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, said today the elections were "well administered."

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