Hamas victory redraws political map of Middle East
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
Hamas swept to victory over the long-dominant Fatah party on Thursday in Palestinian parliamentary polls, and Israel immediately ruled out talks with any government involving the Islamic militant group.
Hamas won an overwhelming majority in the 132-seat legislature, taking 76 seats to Fatah's 43 in Wednesday's election, the official vote count showed. It gives Hamas the power to shape and possibly even lead the next cabinet.
The landslide took even Hamas officials by surprise.
"When we took part in the elections we honestly expected to win but we did not expect to win by so much," said Osama Hamdan, the group's representative in Lebanon.
"Sixty seats makes a winner, but winning by this large majority means the Palestinian people have given us a high level of confidence and put a heavy responsibility in our hands."
The biggest party in parliament can veto the president's choice of prime minister. Hamas called for immediate talks among factions to discuss a new government and Palestinian officials said President Mahmoud Abbas would ask Hamas to form one.
But Fatah leaders said they wanted no part in such a coalition. Firing in the air, Fatah gunmen in Gaza City vented their anger at Hamas's victory. They blamed Abbas and party bigwigs for the loss and called on them to resign.
In a clear message to Hamas, Abbas stressed that any government would have to follow his own program to negotiate with Israel for Palestinian statehood. The moderate Fatah leader has said he might resign if he cannot pursue a peace agenda.
U.S. President George W. Bush appealed to Abbas to stay in office and vowed Washington would not deal with an armed Palestinian group advocating Israel's destruction. Hamas rebuffed demands to disarm and change its charter.
"Today we woke up and the sky was a different color. We have entered a new era," Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, of Fatah, said after Hamas claimed victory.
Fatah loyalists clashed with triumphant Hamas supporters who briefly raised their green flags at the entrance to the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah. Fatah activists trampled on one of the banners when it was lowered. Shots were fired nearby.
In Gaza City, Fatah gunmen fired volleys in the air and demanded the resignation of Abbas and the party's old guard. Hamas told its supporters to leave the streets to avoid clashes.
With peace talks stalled since 2000, and Israel and Hamas bitter enemies, Israel's Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could opt for unilateral moves to determine Israel's borders on land that the Palestinians want for a state. It has already pulled its settlers out of the Gaza Strip without negotiations.
Israel rejects talks
Olmert, who took over from Ariel Sharon after he suffered a stroke three weeks ago, said in a statement Israel would not negotiate with a Palestinian government that included members "of an armed terror organization that calls for Israel's destruction."
Hamas, whose support among Palestinians is based partly on its suicide bombings against Israel, geared its election campaign to public frustration over Fatah's failure to achieve statehood and its reputation for corruption.
The Islamic group's charity network in the impoverished Gaza Strip and in the West Bank also boosted its popularity.
"Hamas did not win because people loved Hamas, but because people were taking revenge against the past years of Fatah rule," said Adel al-Helo, 41, a Gaza shopkeeper.
Leaders of the EU, the biggest donor to the aid-dependent Palestinian Authority, said that Hamas must renounce violence and recognize Israel or risk international isolation.
In Washington, Bush said Hamas's victory was a sign that Palestinians were unhappy with the status quo and showed democracy at work, which was positive for the Middle East.
But he stuck firmly to the U.S. view of Hamas as a terrorist group. It has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings in Israel since the latest uprising began over five years ago.
"I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform," Bush told a news conference. "You can't be a partner in peace if ... your party has got an armed wing."
The United States is the main sponsor of the long-stalled "road map," a peace plan that charts mutual steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel. Fatah advocates a two-state solution to the conflict.
"I am strongly committed to implementing the political program for which I was elected," said Abbas. "And this is based on the path of negotiations and a peaceful settlement to the conflict with Israel."
Commentators in the Arab world predicted that pragmatism would eventually oblige Hamas to soften its position and Israel to talk to the new Palestinian leaders.
Hamas has largely respected a truce for nearly a year.
Despite weeks of armed chaos before the poll, voting in the first parliamentary election since 1996 was orderly, with about 900 foreign observers led by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter looking on. Turnout was 78 percent of the 1.3 million voters.
(Additional reporting by Wafa Amr and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah, Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Saul Hudson in Washington, Mark Trevelyan in Davos and Jonathan Wright in Cairo)