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Hamas takes control of Palestinian parliament

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—With supporters shouting "God is great," the Islamist militant group Hamas took control of the Palestinian parliament on Saturday. Hamas offered to compromise with its defeated political rivals but maintained a defiant stand toward its nemesis, Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah party urged Hamas to accept negotiations with Israel as the "sole political, pragmatic and strategic choice" Palestinians have in their struggle to create a state.

Hamas leaders, who have long denounced deals with Israel, greeted the president's speech with polite applause, but made it clear that they have a different agenda than that of Abbas, who's also known as Abu Mazen.

"Abu Mazen was elected for his political platform, and we were elected for our political platform," said Ismail Haniyeh, the new Gaza City lawmaker expected to become the next prime minister. "This is the point of difference between us. However, these differences will be resolved through dialogue."

"We are not accepting Israel," top Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said during a break in Saturday's session. "Hamas will be the same Hamas. We are going to implement our agenda."

Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel. As it works to form a new government over the next few weeks, Hamas will face the prospect of economic isolation if it refuses to renounce terrorism, embrace previous deals with Israel and formally accept Israel's right to live side by side with a new Palestinian state.

Israel, the United States and European countries have warned that they will cut off direct financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas doesn't meet these demands.

Israel's Cabinet was scheduled to meet on Sunday to consider a series of harsh measures that could financially cripple the Palestinian government even before Hamas has a chance to take over. Among the options are proposals to bar thousands of Palestinian workers from entering Israel and block the Palestinian Authority from building a new seaport and airport in Gaza.

Most significantly, Israel is threatening to stop passing along about $50 million in monthly tax and customs revenue it collects for the Palestinian Authority. That could cripple the Palestinian government, which has about 138,000 workers and is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Hamas lawmakers sought to downplay the potential economic stranglehold and said that they have received assurances from nearby Arab and Muslim nations that they will step in to help.

"The tasks that await you are large, very large indeed," said Abbas said in his speech. He told Hamas lawmakers that they had created "a new political reality" with their electoral victory in last month's legislative election.

Hamas won 74 of 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council and ended decades of domination by the late Yasser Arafat's Fatah party. The stronger-than-expected victory gives Hamas heavy leverage in battles with Abbas.

Abbas could reject the Cabinet Hamas puts together, but he would have few alternates to pursue if he did so.

Hamas is trying to entice Fatah, which has run day-to-day affairs in the Palestinian Authority for more than a decade, into a coalition. Fatah is refusing to cooperate and vowing to resurrect itself as the "loyal opposition."

Hamas' challenges were underscored on Saturday by logistical problems.

Israel barred Hamas lawmakers from the Gaza Strip from traveling to the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Abbas spoke to most of the legislators.

Instead, about three dozen lawmakers, including Haniyeh and other top Hamas figures, gathered in a Gaza City convention hall where they watched Abbas on two small video screens.

The videoconference was repeatedly marred by technical glitches, making it difficult for the two cities to communicate and carry out their first official duties. The video feed from Ramallah was repeatedly dropped, the audio cut in and out at points, and the sound system was plagued by echoes and a delay.

Still, the problems didn't keep the lawmakers from being sworn in. Hundreds of supporters broke into enthusiastic applause, and some shouted "God is great" as Hamas officially took power.

"This is a new starting point for the Palestinian people," said Mariam Farhat, a Hamas lawmaker who has had three sons killed in the conflict, including one whom she coached in using a rifle before he took part in a deadly assault on an Israeli settlement in the Gaza Strip. "We hope it is a good move."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Mohammed Najib contributed to this report from Ramallah.)

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

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

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