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Hamas wins Palestinian legislature, transforming Mideast politics

RAMALLAH, West Bank—The Islamic militant group Hamas secured a commanding legislative victory Thursday over the ruling Fatah party founded by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat—a stunning upset that's certain to reshape Middle East politics.

Palestinian voters upended the regional political dynamics overnight by propelling Hamas into the top echelons of Palestinian power on Wednesday and transforming Arafat's fractured political party into what its leaders dubbed "the loyal opposition."

In preliminary results released Thursday night, Hamas candidates surprised even themselves by securing at least 76 of 132 seats in the new parliament, giving them a mandate to form the next Cabinet. Fatah, which controlled 68 of 88 seats in the old legislature, won just 43 seats in the expanded Palestinian Legislative Council. The rest of the seats went to a small number of independent candidates.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Cabinet resigned to clear the way for a Hamas government.

The surprise triumph for Hamas, a group that's formally committed to the destruction of Israel and has repeatedly sent suicide bombers to kill Israelis, sent shock waves around the globe. Political leaders from Washington to Jerusalem scrambled to respond to a new reality that cast an immediate pall over prospects for renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Israeli acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the election had created an untenable new reality and called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to immediately disarm Hamas.

"The state of Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if its members include an armed terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel," Olmert said.

President Bush warned that his administration wouldn't deal with a new Hamas-led government unless the group disarmed its militant wing and abandoned its longstanding campaign to destroy the Jewish state.

"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 said Thursday before the full scope of Hamas' victory was clear.

The Bush administration strategy of encouraging and working with a moderate Palestinian government appeared in tatters.

The Hamas victory also could affect Israel's spring election. While Israel's pullback from the Gaza Strip last summer was popular, conservatives led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are already blaming ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his centrist allies, including Olmert, for boosting Hamas by unilaterally abandoning Jewish settlements. Hamas has claimed its military campaign forced Israel to abandon its Gaza Strip settlements and has vowed to continue armed resistance.

Hamas leaders sought to offer a conciliatory hand Thursday. They urged Abbas not to follow through with threats to resign if his Fatah party lost and urged their political rivals to join them in a new coalition government.

"We want political partnership and we are interested in opening a serious dialogue with Fatah and the other political factions to stand and work together," Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza City.

But demoralized Fatah members—who wept throughout the day as it became clear that their nearly 40 years of dominance over Palestinian politics had come to an abrupt end—rebuffed the entreaties.

"We will not participate in any new government," said an angry, red-eyed Ziad Abu Ein after emerging from an emotional meeting with stunned Fatah leaders. "Hamas now should lead the Palestinian Authority."

The results were especially bitter for Fatah because exit polls released Wednesday night indicated that the ruling party would eke out a narrow victory in the first legislative election in a decade. But by early Thursday, it was clear that Fatah candidates running in regional seats, which account for half the legislature, had been routed, handing Hamas a solid victory.

In the wake of Arafat's death 14 months ago, Palestinian voters lost confidence in Fatah and began to turn increasingly toward Hamas, which runs extensive social welfare programs for Palestinians. Many Palestinian voters said they were tired of Fatah's arrogance and frustrated that its leaders had given so many concessions to Israel without making much progress in founding an independent Palestinian state.

After consulting all day with his aides, Abbas emerged late Thursday and vowed to stay on as president of the Palestinian Authority to shepherd the new government through the difficult next stages. Abbas said he would begin working quickly with Hamas, but suggested that its members would have to accept a two-state solution if they wanted to lead the Palestinian Authority. It's unclear who the next prime minister will be.

Fatah is leaving Hamas a series of daunting challenges. The government is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, the economy is stagnant, unemployment is high, and efforts to create an independent Palestinian state have stalled.

Hamas leaders hailed the vote as a landmark event.

"This is a flame for the Islamic brotherhood in the Middle East," said jubilant Hamas campaign manager Firhas Abed. "This is not a regional issue. This is the center of the world."

The ascension of Hamas, after years of sending waves of suicide bombers into Israel, creates a quandary for the international community. Israel, the United States and the European community all warned Palestinians before the election that they would cut off financial and economic ties if members of Hamas were included in the new Cabinet.

Those moves could cripple the already fragile Palestinian economy and undermine any efforts to restart Middle East peace negotiations.

"The peace process will be in a deep freeze," said Danny Yatom, a member of Knesset, Israel's parliament, and the left-leaning Labor Party.

Hillel Frisch, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, called the election a "revolutionary precedent in the Arab world" that emboldened militants. But he said Hamas was likely to soften its position toward Israel as a result of the international pressure.

"I find it hard to believe once Hamas is in government, given the pressure the U.S. will put on them, they won't moderate," he said. "I think it's promising, provided that the Americans and Europeans are tough with them. If not, then it could be disastrous."

Hamas leaders have sent mixed signals about their immediate intentions. While the destruction of Israel remains a key goal, Hamas didn't highlight that in its political platform. Although Hamas leaders rejected any suggestion that they negotiate directly with Israel, they left open the possibility of taking part in talks through a middle man. Hamas leaders indicated that they might be willing to renew a yearlong truce with Israel that they largely honored in 2005.

On the streets of Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, jubilant Hamas supporters waving the group's signature lime-green flags poured into the streets by the thousands. As stoic Fatah supporters looked on, the revelers converged on the city's main downtown square singing, cheering and chanting "God is great." Young boys climbed up a metal statue in the middle of the square to unfurl a campaign banner featuring their slain spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, who was assassinated by an Israeli airstrike nearly two years ago.

"Israel and the United States say no to Hamas," read the banner. "What do you say?"

After taking over the square, the group marched to the legislative headquarters where some Hamas supporters threw stones and swarmed the building to raise the group's flag in symbolic victory before being disbursed by Palestinian police.

Chastened Fatah leaders conceded that they hadn't done enough to convince Palestinians that they could root out government corruption and work with Israel to create an independent state.

"We have to put our house in order. It's an urgent call and an urgent need," said Abdullah Abdullah, the outgoing deputy minister of foreign affairs.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem and Mohammad Najib in Ramallah contributed to this report.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MIDEAST

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060126 Hamas timeline, 20060126 Hamas bio, 20050126 MIDEAST election

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