RAMALLAH, West Bank – Hamas’ top official told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday the Islamic militant group is ready for a partnership after defeating the ruling
Fatah Party in parliamentary elections — a shocking upset sure to throw Mideast peacemaking into turmoil.
Officials in both parties said Hamas appeared to have captured a large majority of seats in Wednesday’s elections. The Central Election Commission said the vote count had not been completed and that it would make an official announcement Thursday evening.
Abbas’ Fatah Party will decide later in the day whether to join a Hamas-led government or serve in the opposition, Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath said.
Earlier, Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat said after a meeting with Abbas that the party has already decided to serve in the opposition. “Hamas will be asked to form the new government,” Erekat said. “We in Fatah will not join them. We will be a loyal opposition and rebuild the party.”
Abbas, who favors peace talks with
Israel, has said he would resign if he could no longer pursue his agenda. Aides said he planned a major speech Thursday night.
Israel and the United States have said they would not deal with a government led by Hamas, which has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and which they consider a terrorist group.
Acknowledging the Hamas victory, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Cabinet ministers resigned Thursday — hours before official results were released.
“This is the choice of the people. It should be respected,” Qureia said. “If it’s true, then the president should ask Hamas to form a new government.” The Cabinet remained in office in a caretaker capacity.
By law, Abbas must ask the largest party in the new parliament — presumably Hamas — to form the new government. Abbas was elected separately a year ago and remains president.
Hamas capitalized on widespread discontent with Fatah’s corruption and ineffectiveness. Much of its campaign focused on internal Palestinian issues, while playing down the conflict with Israel.
Israeli officials declined comment on the outcome, but senior security officials gathered Thursday to discuss the results. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scheduled talks with senior officials later in the day.
Olmert said Wednesday, before Hamas claimed victory, that Israel cannot trust a Palestinian leadership in which the Islamic group has a role.
“Israel can’t accept a situation in which Hamas, in its present form as a terror group calling for the destruction of Israel, will be part of the
Palestinian Authority without disarming,” Olmert said in a statement issued by his office.
Reactions to the Hamas victory streamed in from around the world. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, according to news reports, called it a “very, very, very bad result.” But Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the
European Union’s external relations commissioner, said Hamas must be “ready to work for peace” with Israel if it joins the Palestinian government.
Kofi Annan congratulated the Palestinian people on the peaceful elections, which he views as an important step toward a Palestinian state.
President Bush told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday the United States will not deal with Hamas until it renounces its position calling for the destruction of Israel.
Hamas said before the election it does not want to govern alone, and would prefer to bring Fatah into a coalition. Hamas officials said the group would declare its intentions after official results are announced.
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.
Before the election, Hamas had suggested it would be content as a junior partner in the 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, sent mixed signals about its plans. He said peace talks and recognition of Israel are “not on our agenda” but the group is ready for a partnership — presumably with Abbas.
Fatah’s official position wasn’t immediately clear. Officials appeared to be in shock, turning off their phones and avoiding reporters.
One defeated Fatah candidate, Nabil Amr, said he did not expect his party to accept a junior position in a Hamas-led government. “I don’t think Fatah can participate in a lower position,” said Amr.
The election marked the first time Hamas has contested a legislative vote, and leading the Cabinet could give it significant powers. The Cabinet holds wide control over security forces, finance and other government functions, though Abbas has retained power mainly through tradition and political leverage.
Abbas, in his role as leader of the
Palestine Liberation Organization, would still remain in charge of negotiations with Israel.
Palestinian election officials confirmed early Thursday that Hamas had won a large majority of the seats up for grabs in electoral districts in the
West Bank and Gaza.
Half the seats 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, allowing the Islamic group to capitalize.
Initial exit polls had forecast a slight edge for Fatah, with Hamas coming in a strong second. The polls predicted that neither party would have a majority and would have to rely on smaller parties to form a coalition.
However, on Thursday morning, Hamas officials said the group had won up to 75 seats — giving it a solid majority in the 132-member parliament.
Officials in Fatah conceded that Hamas had won about 70 seats. They spoke on condition of anonymity because counting in some districts was continuing.
Palestinian pollsters were at a loss to explain the discrepancy between the exit polls. Many voters said they had been afraid to admit to pollsters they had supported Hamas, fearing retribution.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who apparently 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.
Washington miscalculated in pushing for the vote, as part of its pro-democracy campaign in the Arab world, she said. “The Americans insisted on having the election now, so they have to respect the results of the election, as we all do,” she said.
Israel has repeatedly asked Abbas to force Hamas and other militant groups to disarm but Abbas has refused, warning such an act could cause civil war. Hamas has committed dozens of suicide bombings against Israel.
Turnout was heavy, with nearly 78 percent of 1.3 million eligible voters casting ballots. Polling stations were heavily guarded, and there were no reports of major violence.
International observers, including former President Carter, reported no major problems with fraud.