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Published: Thursday, 1/26/2006

Militant Hamas wins landslide victory

ASSOCIATED PRESS

RAMALLAH, West Bank Hamas won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections as Palestinian voters rejected the longtime rule of the corruption-ridden Fatah Party, according to nearly complete official returns today.

The triumph by the Islamic militant group plunged the future of Mideast peacemaking into turmoil, with Israel saying it would not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes members of Hamas.

Palestinian leaders, stunned by the militant group s sweeping victory, huddled to determine the shape of a new government as world leaders, including President Bush, insisted Hamas renounce violence and recognize Israel s right to exist.

Supporters of the two main parties briefly scuffled in Ramallah after Hamas supporters raised their party s green flag over the parliament. The two sides threw stones at each other, breaking windows in the building, as a small group of Fatah supporters tried to lower the banner.

The crowd of about 3,000 Hamas backers cheered and whistled as activists on the roof raised the flag again.

Hamas won 76 seats in the 132-member parliament, while Fatah, which controlled Palestinian politics for four decades, won 43 seats, said Hanna Nasser, head of the Central Election commission. The 13 remaining seats went to several smaller parties and independents.

The result was based on a count of 95 percent of the vote and still could change slightly, Nasser said.

Hamas won 60.3 percent of the vote, said Ismail Haniyeh, one of the group s leaders.

Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum said there could be no relations with a group that has been responsible for scores of deadly attacks against Israelis and is listed as a terror organization by the United States and the European Union.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his cabinet resigned even before the official results were announced, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was to ask Hamas to form the next government.

In a televised speech, Abbas suggested that future negotiations with Israel would be conducted through the Palestine Liberation Organization, a possible bypass of a Hamas-led government.

We are going to reactivate the role of the PLO, Abbas said.

The PLO was founded as the umbrella group of Palestinian organizations several decades ago, but its importance has withered since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Abbas is leader of the PLO, in addition to Palestinian Authority president.

Abbas also said he would begin immediate consultations to form a new government but did not specifically refer to Hamas sweeping election victory. He said he remained committed to previous peace deals and the U.S.-backed road map peace plan, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.

I am committed to implementing program on which you elected me a year ago, he said. It is a program based on negotiations and peaceful settlement with Israel.

Hamas exiled supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, called Abbas from Syria to discuss the results.

He stressed Hamas insists on a partnership with all the Palestinian factions, especially our brothers in Fatah, Hamas said on its Web site.

In a first sign of pragmatism, Mahmoud Zahar, a top Hamas official, said the group would extend its year-old truce if Israel reciprocates.

If not, then I think we will have no option but to protect our people and our land, he told Associated Press Television News.

Bush said the United States will not deal with Palestinian leaders who dispute Israel s right to exist.

If your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you re not a partner in peace, and we re interested in peace, Bush said.

Israel s acting foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, asked the EU not to deal with a terror government.

Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat, who led Palestinians in negotiations with Israel, said the party does not want to join a Hamas government.

We will be a loyal opposition and rebuild the party, Erekat said, after meeting with Abbas. But Nabil Shaath, another senior Fatah lawmaker, said the party s leadership would make a decision later today.

Abbas was elected separately a year ago and remains president.

However, the Palestinian leader has said he would resign if he could no longer pursue his peace agenda.

The Cabinet and legislature must approve any major initiative by Abbas, giving Hamas tremendous influence over peace moves.

Hamas supporters streamed into the streets to celebrate. In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, supporters shot in the air and handed out candy. Others honked horns and waved Hamas flags from car windows.

Leaders around the world were shocked by Hamas victory, with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi reportedly calling it a very, very, very bad result, and others insisting Hamas give up violence and recognize Israel s right to exist.

You cannot have one foot in politics and another in terror, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

Hamas capitalized on widespread discontent with years of Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness. Much of its campaign focused on internal Palestinian issues, while playing down the conflict with Israel.

Before the election, Hamas had suggested it would be content as a junior partner in the next government, thus avoiding a decision on its relationship with Israel.

Throughout the campaign, leaders sent mixed signals, hinting they could be open to some sort of accommodation with Israel. Its apparent victory will now force it to take a clearer position on key issues, including whether to abandon its violent ideology.

Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas candidate who won election in the northern Gaza Strip, said peace talks and recognition of Israel are not on our agenda but the group is ready for a partnership presumably with Abbas.

Senior Israeli security officials gathered today to discuss the results and acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scheduled talks with senior officials but made no public comment.

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, condemned the vote.

Today Hamastan was formed, he said. Labor Party politician Ami Ayalon said Israel might have to change the route of its West Bank security barrier to take Hamas victory into account.

Hamas officials tried to reassure the world of its intentions.

Don t be afraid, Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, told the BBC. Hamas is a Palestinian movement, it is an aware and mature movement, one which is politically open in the Palestinian arena, and to its Arab and Islamic hinterland, and similarly open to the international arena.

Palestinian election officials confirmed early today that Hamas had won a large majority of the seats up for grabs in electoral districts in the West Bank and Gaza. It was the first time Hamas has contested a parliamentary vote.

Half the seats in Wednesday s parliament vote were chosen on a national list and the other half by districts. While the national voting appeared to be close, election officials said Hamas had won a large majority in the district races.

Hamas apparently took advantage of divisions in Fatah; the long-ruling party fielded multiple candidates in many districts, splitting the Fatah vote.

Initial exit polls had given Fatah a slight edge. Palestinian pollsters were at a loss to explain the discrepancy between the exit polls and the result. It may have been partly due to a reluctance by some voters to admit to pollsters that they were abandoning the ruling party.

The errors appeared especially glaring in the district races, where smaller numbers of voters were polled.

Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who was re-elected on a moderate platform, said the Hamas victory was a dramatic turning point. She said she is concerned the militants will now impose their fundamentalist social agenda and lead the Palestinians into international isolation.

She said Fatah s corruption, Israel s tough measures and international indifference to the plight of the Palestinians were to blame for Hamas strong showing.

International observers, led by former President Carter, said the elections were well-administered.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com.



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