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Hamas Sweeps Palestinian Elections, Complicating Peace Efforts in Mideast

Youssef Shrafi, a Hamas candidate for the Palestinian parliament, is congratulated at his home in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.
Youssef Shrafi, a Hamas candidate for the Palestinian parliament, is congratulated at his home in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. (By Mohammed Salem -- Reuters)

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"What they did offended not only Hamas but the Islamic nation," said Saleh Mikdad, 40, a print shop employee from the Amari refugee camp here. "But now we are all brothers."

In the past, the Fatah-dominated parliament approved the initiatives of Abbas and Arafat without much debate. But that could change with Hamas controlling the legislature, which will have the power to bring down cabinets if it does not agree with policy and would likely have to approve the terms of a final peace agreement with Israel.

In proceeding with elections despite Hamas's strong showing in last year's municipal races, Abbas gambled that it would be easier to disarm the group and modulate its policies, which include adopting Islamic law in the territories, with its members inside the Palestinian Authority. But Hamas's showing was far stronger than predicted by anyone in Fatah -- or by Palestinian pollsters who severely underestimated the movement's performance in its first national elections.

Hamas leaders must now decide how to form a cabinet whose ministers will run a Palestinian Authority bureaucracy dominated by Fatah supporters. Several Fatah officials said the party would probably decline any invitation to join the next cabinet so that Hamas, its sharpest critic for years, would get a sense of the difficulties involved in governing an angry electorate living under military occupation.

"They want to see how Hamas will act once it's responsible for running the government," said Bassem Barhum, a spokesman for the Palestinian Legislative Council. "They want to show the public that this is what they got. This is Hamas."

Barhum said rules required Abbas, who has threatened to resign if Hamas blocks his political program, to invite the largest party in parliament to form the next cabinet. Although it has the votes in parliament to name any cabinet it chooses, Hamas could be hampered by its lack of experience if it chooses to govern without a partner.

Party leaders chose candidates with backgrounds in medicine, education, computer sciences and other fields so that Hamas would have the expertise to run the various ministries. But Mahmoud Zahar, a victorious Hamas candidate from Gaza, said before the vote that the party favored a coalition government if it won.

One possibility is that Hamas will choose the leader of a third party to be prime minister while its own members grow accustomed to their new roles. One likely candidate for the job is Salam Fayyad, a former finance minister who won a parliamentary seat as the head of the anti-corruption Third Way party.

"My hunch is that they do not want to form a government on their own and would prefer a coalition with Fatah," said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "If this is not possible, I think they'll support a government of technocrats."

The Fatah Central Committee convened Thursday evening to begin discussing whether to join a Hamas-led cabinet, if invited to do so. Abbas Zaki, a committee member, said the decision would "depend on the program."

"If it is only Hamas, then it will be very hard to join," Zaki said. "And it is also necessary for us to understand what happened. We need to study this so we can make a recovery."

Some angry Fatah activists called for Abbas, who is commonly known as Abu Mazen, to step down.

"Abu Mazen led us to this catastrophe," said Shukri Radaideh, a Fatah leader in the Bethlehem district. "He must now resign."

Abbas postponed these parliamentary elections last July to secure a new election law beneficial to Fatah's prospects. One of the law's chief provisions allowed more members of parliament to be elected from parties' national candidate lists rather than from the district level, where Hamas's organization is strongest.

The results announced Thursday, however, showed Hamas winning three more seats from the national list than Fatah and nearly three times as many in district races. In addition to its sweep here in Ramallah, Hamas won all seats except those reserved for Christian candidates in such traditional Fatah territory as Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where the Israeli cabinet had prohibited Hamas candidates from campaigning.


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