Hamas: The hardliners appear ready to share power, but will their rivals believe it?

The Islamists say they are willing to form a 'unity' government for Palestine but as armed protests rage, Fatah may find the deal hard to accept. By Donald Macintyre in Gaza City
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Palestinian hopes of a swift and orderly transition to a new administration in the wake of Hamas's landslide election victory last week were shaken yesterday as activists and gunmen in the defeated Fatah organisation again staged angry protests in the West Bank and Gaza.

As key Fatah figures converged for talks with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah, it was unclear last night when he will travel to Gaza for an expected meeting with Hamas to negotiate the details of a "national unity" government. Hamas leaders have suggested a new administration could be a coalition with Fatah, or one staffed by independent "technocrats".

Firing in the air, Fatah gunmen planted a picture of Yasser Arafat on the roof of the parliament building in Ramallah, while armed policemen briefly took over the Gaza City parliament to oppose any attempt by Hamas to take control of the security forces. Although most of Gaza remained calm, one police officer was said to have been wounded after a firefight with Hamas militants in the early hours of yesterday.

Mr Abbas is facing the most difficult moment of his already troubled presidency as he seeks to reconcile angry Fatah activists with the stunning defeat inflicted on them on Wednesday. Some blame the President himself for failing to oust unpopular "old guard" candidates from its ranks and prevent the faction's fragmentation.

Ismail Haniya, the leading Hamas candidate among the 74 who won seats in the 132-member parliament, used a sermon in a Gaza mosque on Friday to insist - contrary to most expectations here - that Hamas would not launch a purge of the Fatah-dominated security forces. But a Fatah- supporting uniformed police sergeant, giving his name as Abu Hayin, said at the Gaza parliament building yesterday: "We don't know what will happen and we are a little afraid. But there is no way that Hamas is going to take control of the police force. We will have to come under the President if Hamas take the ministries."

Mr Abbas's problems are compounded by serious opposition within sections of Fatah to entering the coalition Hamas says it is seeking with its defeated rival. In Damascus yesterday the exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, said Hamas was ready to merge its military wing with other armed factions "to form an army like every country ... an army to defend our people against aggression". He repeated that the faction was seeking a "partnership" with all parties. But in Tulkarem, one of several West Bank cities where protests erupted yesterday, a Fatah gunman, Ibrahim Khreisheh, told Reuters: "Whoever will participate in a government with Hamas, we will shoot him in the head."

The post-election recriminations within Fatah overshadowed what may yet prove the more profound international threat of a funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority. The PA employs more than 130,000 workers and is responsible for health, education and many other services in much of the occupied territories.

Unless Hamas recognises Israel and renounces violence, the US, European countries and Israel are threatening to cut off funding from the PA if it includes Hamas ministers. The faction has largely observed the truce with Israel brokered by Mr Abbas a year ago, but over the previous four years it was responsible for more than 400 Israeli deaths in suicide bombings.

Mr Haniya said yesterday: "This aid cannot be a sword over the heads of the Palestinian people and will not be material to blackmail our people, to blackmail [Hamas] and the resistance. It is rejected." Raji Sourani, the respected Gaza lawyer and director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, said a decision to cut aid and "punish a nation" would inevitably foment hatred in the Arab world against the West. He added: "Europe and the United States would be extremely stupid to cut the aid. All their rhetoric would boomerang 180 degrees. How dare they say we want democracy in the Middle East and then when they do find an example of real democracy in the Arab world, they reward it with a slap in the face?"

Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, has said the group will never recognise Israel. But Ziad Abu Amr, an independent academic and politician elected to the council with Hamas backing, and a possible foreign minister in the new government, suggested on Friday that Hamas could prolong and enforce a ceasefire with Israel as a first step. Recognition could await any agreement on the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The post-election turbulence came amid growing evidence that Hamas itself had not expected a victory on this scale. If so, their surprise was amply shared by two - in some ways typical - former Fatah supporters who voted for Hamas on Wednesday, thinking the outcome would be a tie, or Hamas as a strong and much-needed opposition.

"When I saw the exit polls on Wednesday night, saying Fatah was just ahead of Hamas, I though that was good," said retired headmaster Ibrahim Ahmed, 70. But over coffee in the family's Gaza City living room, Mr Ahmed and his son Mahdi, 43, a teacher in a UN primary school, both insisted that they in no way regretted their decision. They wanted to see the international community allow a new Hamas-backed government to succeed. "If they don't deliver, then they will be voted out again," Ibrahim added.

Both had supported the Oslo accords, and wanted to see a resumption of negotiations. But after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and the collapse of a peace process during Benjamin Netanyahu's premiership, said Mahdi, "We began to see Fatah start to disintegrate, and there was a also a bad smell ... of corruption". Hamas, both because of its part in the "resistance" and its equitable distribution of charitable funds, "got closer to the people as Fatah got further and further away from them".

Mahdi was against the killing of civilians, but cited the familiar defence of suicide bombing: that Israel also killed Palestinian civilians, and Hamas did not have the firepower to match Israel's military might. The truce would now be maintained, he believed, adding that he would like to see the "good Fatah guys" like Marwan Barghouti, the jailed No 1 Fatah candidate, and his ally, Kadoura Fares, joining the government. "I hope now that a new government can negotiate with Israel from a position of strength," he said.

By contrast, Izzeldein Al Hadad, 50, a Fatah-supporting businessman, said the Hamas victory had been a "tsunami". He saw no reason for Fatah to join Hamas in a coalition: "When we were trying to negotiate Israel they were firing rockets. Now we will wait and see how they do."

Which comes back to the potential rebellion that Mr Abbas may have to face down in Fatah. Diana Buttu, former legal adviser to the PLO and to Mr Abbas, argued that as many voters had turned against a fragmented Fatah as had embraced Hamas. Many internal critics felt the President had not sufficiently exploited the personal mandate he had been given in his own election this time last year, she said.

One Palestinian official added: "If Abbas did a Sharon and bypassed the central committee by forming a new party, many people would leave Fatah with him. It's unlikely to happen but it's a measure of Fatah's problems that it can even be talked about."


MAHMOUD ZAHAR Gaza-based head of Hamas in the Palestinian territories. A medical doctor, he survived a 2003 air attack which killed his son

ISMAIL HANIYA Topped Hamas candidates' list. Possible PM in new government. Believed to be No 2 in the occupied territories

MOHAMMED ABU TEIR Second on candidates' list, leading Hamas figure in West Bank. Spent much of past 30 years in jail or detention

KHALED MESHAAL Believed de facto leader of Hamas since Israel killed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi in 2004. Operates out of Damascus

MOHAMMED DEIF In hiding, reputed leader of Hamas' military wing