HEBRON, West Bank -- The Islamic group Hamas won a powerful new role in parliamentary elections yesterday that were projected to give Fatah, the party that has led Palestinians for decades, a narrow lead but force it to compete with Hamas for control of the government.
Palestinian election officials were not expected to release official results until today at the earliest. But an exit poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research projected that Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat, would control 58 seats to 53 for Hamas in the 132-seat parliament.
A poll conducted by Bir Zeit University found Fatah beating Hamas 63 seats to 58.
Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said last night that neither Fatah nor Hamas is likely to have a majority in parliament, which would make it impossible for either party to form a government on its own.
"This will give the small groups and the independents a big chance to decide" who forms a government, Shikaki told Israeli reporters. "Hamas theoretically has the chance to form the next government."
No other party was projected to win more than three seats. The margin of error in Shikaki's poll was 4 percentage points to 7 percentage points, depending on the election district.
The results appeared to confirm that Fatah has lost support among voters disillusioned with corruption, incompetence and infighting among its members.
Hamas' apparent close second-place finish was evidence of the growing strength of an Islamic movement that until now was best known for its campaign of suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel.
Hamas' strong showing will create an awkward situation for Israel and the United States. Both countries have designated Hamas, whose charter states that its main goal is the destruction of Israel, a terrorist organization with which they will never negotiate.
"We have yet to decide on a response to Palestinian election results," Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, told Army Radio.
President Bush said after the polls closed that the United States would not work with Hamas unless it renounces its call for the destruction of Israel
"A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace," Bush said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. "And so you're getting a sense of how I'm going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is: Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you."
State Department spokesman Mark McCormack said, "We don't deal with Hamas. And under the current circumstances, I don't see that changing." He did not rule out U.S. contacts with the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas had welcomed Hamas into the political process, arguing that if Hamas shouldered the responsibilities of government, it would be forced to moderate its militant positions.
Casting his vote in Ramallah, Abbas said he is ready to resume peace talks with Israel even if Hamas joins the government.
"We are ready to negotiate," Abbas said. "We are partners with the Israelis. They don't have the right to choose their partner. But if they are seeking a Palestinian partner, this partner exists."
About 77 percent of the 1.3 million registered Palestinian voters cast their ballots in their first parliamentary elections in a decade.
The chilly, overcast day had the feeling of a street carnival in many villages and cities in the West Bank. Cars plastered with campaign posters and honking their horns sped through the streets. Party members stood outside polling stations waving yellow flags for Fatah or green for Hamas. Scores of curious children wearing campaign hats and scarves stood outside polling stations.
Among the voters were about 22,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, where voting was extended because of the long lines at polling stations.
Palestinians had braced for outbreaks of violence, but Election Day passed without major incidents. Thousands of police were deployed across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Signs forbidding voters from bringing weapons inside were prominently displayed outside polling stations.
The election became a reminder of the maturity and stability of Palestinian democracy. Although Palestinians lack a state, their elections were calmer, better organized and more open than other recent balloting in the Arab world.
Palestinians also demonstrated that they were comfortable in entertaining opposing views, even within a family. Sammia Dweik and her daughter, Rasha, 22, reflected the divide between Hamas and Fatah
As they stepped out of a polling station in Hebron, Sammia Dweik said she cast her ballot for Fatah because the party had given Palestinians an identity and a reason to hope that they will have a state someday. Her daughter said she based her vote on Fatah's failures. In the 10 years since the last legislative elections, Fatah controlled parliament but did little to establish law and order, improve economic prosperity or move the Palestinian people closer to peace, she said.
"We tried Fatah but they didn't make any changes," she said. "Hamas will help change the situation."
Hamas, despite its reluctance to negotiate with Israel, might have what it takes to reach a settlement, she said. "We don't want any more killing."
Her mother shook her head, saying she fears that Hamas might bring changes that would prove damaging to Palestinian society.
"They are very strict as an Islamic party. Fatah is more flexible," she said.
Mouwya Al Qwasmi, 34, managing director of the Bank of Palestine in Hebron and a lifelong Fatah supporter, said he wasn't ready to give up on the party despite corruption and other problems in its leadership.
"I know that there is something wrong in Fatah," he said. But "with Fatah you have a vision for peace. For Hamas there is no program. Hamas will not do anything better than those people coming before."
Hamas supporter Sahar Hamdan, 22, an accountant in Bethlehem, said she puts her trust in the Islamic movement.
"They always do what is best for the Palestinian people," she said.
In Beit Ummar, a community of 15,000 north of Hebron, Hamas was seeking to build on its success in municipal elections last year, when it formed a coalition with leftist parties to control the city council.
Since Hamas took control there, it has drastically increased the number of residents paying their municipal fees and tackled the village's $3.4 million debt, said Bader Abu Ayyash, a Hamas member of the council. Entering national politics offers Hamas "a new means to help the Palestinian people," he said.
Rashid Awad, 37, one of the Fatah members of the council, said Hamas overstated its local successes. The farming community's fortunes plummeted during five years of violence, and Hamas has done little to improve the town's plight, he said.
"Nothing has changed," he said. "The economic situation is very bad."
Still, it is worrisome that voters have drifted to Hamas, he said.
"Maybe they don't like Hamas, they just hate Fatah," he said.