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Hamas Sweeps Palestinian Elections, Complicating Peace Efforts in Mideast

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 27, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Jan. 26 -- The radical Islamic movement Hamas won a large majority in the new Palestinian parliament, according to official election results announced Thursday, trouncing the governing Fatah party in a contest that could dramatically reshape the Palestinians' relations with Israel and the rest of the world.

In Wednesday's voting, Hamas claimed 76 of the 132 parliamentary seats, giving the party at war with Israel the right to form the next cabinet under the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of Fatah.

Fatah, which has dominated the legislature since the previous elections a decade ago and the Palestinian cause for far longer, won 43 seats. A collection of nationalist, leftist and independent parties claimed the rest.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, another Fatah leader, resigned his post along with his cabinet early Thursday, as reports of Hamas's victory began to circulate. Although the cabinet would have been required to step aside even if Fatah had retained its majority, Qureia acknowledged in submitting his resignation that Hamas had earned the right to form the next cabinet.

"This is the choice of the people," Qureia, a member of the party's discredited old guard who did not run for reelection, told reporters here. "It should be respected."

Abbas, on the other hand, will continue to serve the four-year presidential term he won in an election a year ago, shortly after the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, the founder of Fatah. Abbas will maintain the broad power to create national policy and control the security services, though he needs parliamentary approval for his budget and legislative proposals. He will also shape peace policy with Israel as head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which does not include Hamas.

The arrival of Hamas, formally known as the Islamic Resistance Movement, in the Palestinian Authority as a nearly equal partner will severely complicate Abbas's efforts to begin negotiations with Israel under the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the "road map." Hamas, which emerged in 1987 during the first Palestinian uprising as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, favors the creation of a Palestinian nation on land that now includes Israel rather than the road map's two-state solution.

The election results stunned U.S. and Israeli officials, who have repeatedly stated that they would not work with a Palestinian Authority that included Hamas, which both countries and the European Union have designated as a terrorist organization. In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that a party could not "have one foot in politics and the other in terror. Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed."

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said in a statement that the Palestinian people had "voted democratically and peacefully." But, he added, "these results may confront us with an entirely new situation which will need to be analyzed" at a meeting of European foreign ministers next week.

Jubilant Hamas leaders reiterated Thursday that they had no plans to pursue peace talks or disarm the party's armed wing, a condition Israel has set for beginning negotiations under the road map. The plan, which calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state by the end of 2005, has been frozen during recent years of violence.

Here in Ramallah, a Fatah stronghold where Hamas won every parliamentary seat except the one reserved for a Christian, dozens of activists from both parties clashed in front of the Palestinian Legislative Council, as the parliament is formally known.

The dispute started when a Hamas supporter hung the party's emerald-green banner above the entrance in place of the national flag. Fatah activists arrived and tore down the banner, which bears the Islamic axiom, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet." The fight that ensued was broken up by police officers, who fired warning shots into the air.

"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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