Leading article: This is the voice of the Palestinian people

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Hamas's stunning victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections opens up a new era in the history of the Middle East. Though Hamas was always expected to do well, few anticipated that it would emerge as the dominant force in Palestinian politics. And no one predicted that the hegemony of the Fatah party would be so comprehensively overturned. Hamas itself hinted throughout the campaign that it would be willing to serve as a junior partner in a Fatah-led coalition. But winning a solid majority of 76 parliamentary seats means that Hamas is now in a position to form a government on its own. Whether it expected it or not, Hamas finds that power has been thrust into its hands.

There can be no doubt over the legitimacy of the Hamas victory. An impressive 78 per cent of registered Palestinian voters turned out. Impartial election observers vouched for the integrity of the poll. There was little violence and no allegations of fraud. The world has long demanded democracy from the Palestinians. Now they have it. Indeed, that the Palestinian Authority was able to organise such a successful election under conditions of military occupation by Israel makes this an especially impressive feat.

What lies behind the Hamas victory is clear. The party was able to capitalise on huge popular discontent with the corrupt Fatah government. But Hamas was also successful because it offered the Palestinian people a vision of a more dignified future. The group's record of providing local educational and health programmes to poor Palestinians was the root of its popularity. The only genuine surprise about the result was the final scale of the Hamas victory.

But the emergence of Hamas does raise some profoundly difficult questions about the prospects for peace in the region. Everyone wants to know if Hamas will change its founding charter to recognise the right of Israel to exist. Will it call an end to its suicide bombing campaign as part of the price of exercising political power? Or will its leaders drag the Palestinian people into painful international isolation by sticking to their hard-line founding principles? The answers to these questions will determine whether Israel decides to deal with the Palestinian Authority, and whether the US and the European Union continue to send aid. The fate of this region now hinges, to a large extent, on what route Hamas decides to go down.

But Hamas is likely to postpone any major decisions about its future until it has cleared out corrupt Fatah officials and consolidated its position in government. And Israel's response to this new reality will be unclear until it has held its elections in March. This means that the peace process and all questions about the "road-map" are likely to be on the back burner for several months. The best way for the rest of the world to further the prospects of peace at this time is to encourage a period of stability. The Quartet - the mediating group of powers made up of Russia, the UN, the EU and the US - will meet early next week to discuss the implications of this result. So too, separately, will EU foreign ministers. A period of reflection from all would be best.

We, naturally, hope that Hamas will find the pressures to go fully down the political route irresistible. And there are encouraging signs that this is already happening. But we understand the fears of those who regard this result as dangerous, both for the Palestinians and the Israelis. Yet, in the end, the mixed feelings of the rest of the world about the result this election has delivered are irrelevant. The democratic voice of the Palestinian people has been heard. And we must now deal with the new reality.

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