New era in Mideast

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The overwhelming victory in Palestinian elections by the radical Islamic group Hamas ushered in an era of uncertainty and anxiety yesterday, as Palestinians and Israelis wondered what kind of government to expect from an organization best known for suicide attacks, not its politics.

Hamas won 76 seats in the Palestinians' 132-seat parliament, an outright majority, ending decades of dominance by Fatah, which won 43 seats, according to preliminary results released last night.


For many Palestinians, Hamas' landslide win in Wednesday's election promises an end to an era of Fatah corruption and inefficiency. But the party's victory also reduced hopes of restarting the peace process. Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization. The Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel.

Hamas leaders issued mixed messages yesterday about their intentions. One senior official, Mushir al-Masri of Gaza, said that recognizing and negotiating with Israel are "not on our agenda."


Mahmoud Zahar, another senior official, said Hamas is willing to extend its year-old truce if Israel does not attack its members.

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

Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

"Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if even part of it is an armed terrorist organization calling for the destruction of the state of Israel," he said in a statement after a three-hour emergency Cabinet meeting.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would insist that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas abide by his commitment to disarm militants.

"Israel needs to act judiciously and responsibly," Mofaz said.

Negotiations backed

Abbas reiterated his commitment to negotiations with Israel.


"I am committed to implementing the program on which you elected me a year ago," Abbas said in a televised speech. "It is a program based on negotiations and peaceful settlement with Israel."

Abbas proposed that negotiations with Israel be conducted by the Palestine Liberation Organization, a possible way for Israel to avoid direct contact with a Hamas-controlled government.

Another prominent Fatah member, Saeb Erekat, said his party has decided not to join a Hamas government.

"We will be a loyal opposition and rebuild the party," Erekat said.

Palestinians were stunned by the news of Hamas' victory. Exit polls released Wednesday night had indicated that Fatah had a narrow lead.

By midmorning yesterday, the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia of Fatah, had announced that he and his Cabinet ministers had resigned, making way for a Hamas-led government.


Hundreds of Hamas supporters wearing green hats and scarves poured into downtown Ramallah, dancing, singing and waving flags to celebrate their victory.

There was a brief clash between Fatah loyalists and supporters of Hamas. The two sides began throwing stones at each other after Hamas members raised a green flag above the parliament building in the West Bank city.

Hamas will inherit a poorly managed government that is deeply in debt and facing a possible cutoff of financial aid from the United States and European Union.

Unease about change

"People wanted a change, and Hamas offered a change," Palestinian Hadil Budeiri said as she watched Hamas members parade in Ramallah. Like many Palestinians, she expressed unease about the kind of change that Hamas might bring.

"Things are unknown," she said, "It worries all of us."


Some Palestinians are concerned that Hamas might try to remake society according to a strict interpretation of Islam.

"We don't want the Palestinian people and cause to be isolated. We don't want a theocracy," independent lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi told wire services. "Hamas promises reform. Sure, they will do that. I would like to see reform. But what worries me is things like legislation on education, culture, social welfare, the ramifications for peace in the future."

Many voters said Hamas' victory was fueled more by anger with Fatah than by enthusiastic support for Hamas and Islam.

Whatever the reason, the victory marked a turning point in the organization's 30-year history and might prompt it to abandon its campaign of suicide bombings in favor of order and stability, some analysts said.

"Nobody will tolerate a situation where the Palestinian Authority becomes 'Hamastan,'" said Mordechai Kedar, an analyst at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "Although they would like to cover all the girls and close all the pubs, nobody will let them be the state during the day and terrorists at night."

Hamas has long advocated creating an Islamic state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean in place of Israel. Some secular Palestinians have been concerned that Hamas' growing influence might lead to clashes with secular members of society.


But secular Palestinians who have worked with Hamas often admire the group's professionalism and dedication.

Hamas receives high marks from Janet Michael, a Christian who is the new mayor of Ramallah and who formed an alliance between the independent members of the city council and Hamas in December. They have cooperated without problems, she said.

"Working with Hamas is not bad," she said. "They are normal people. They are disciplined. They are hard workers and well organized."

"Most of the world is still thinking about Hamas like the Taliban," said Mahmoud Abdullah, Ramallah's deputy mayor. Its members may be fundamentalist Muslims, he said, but they are pragmatic and willing to compromise and allow for other points of view. "Hamas is more liberal than you think."

For many Israelis, Hamas' emergence as the dominant Palestinian political force confirmed their worst fears about Palestinian society and about the prospects for peaceful co-existence.

"Today, 'Hamastan' was formed," said Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of Israel's opposition Likud Party.


Gershon Baskin, co-director of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information, said Hamas would not be worried if the United States cut off financial aid.

"The Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority will not be intimidated by U.S. and EU threats to stop financial support," he wrote in a report released yesterday. "Iran's millions of barrels of oil every day being pumped and sold all over the world will provide the Palestinian Authority with the ability to withstand any international boycott."