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In stunning upset, Hamas seen as victor

Militant group takes majority in council

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The militant group Hamas won a majority of the seats in the Palestinian elections, a stunning victory that threatens to derail the Middle East peace process.

Although the Palestinian election council delayed the release of preliminary results until later today, election officials this morning confirmed Hamas had won virtually all of the 66 seats up for grabs in electoral districts in the West Bank and Gaza.

Half the seats in yesterday's parliament vote were chosen on a national list and the other half by districts.

Hamas's top candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, said his group had won about 70 total seats. Officials from the opposing Fatah party privately confirmed those results.

Such a showing would be enough to create a majority in the 132-seat legislative council, which would allow Hamas to form the next Palestinian government.

Hamas's win smashed the decades-long political monopoly of the ruling Fatah party. There was no immediate response from Israeli or US officials.

Nearly 78 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip cast ballots, election officials said. Hamas's first national campaign galvanized voters, some to support its call for ''change and reform," others to block its agenda of establishing Islamic rule and fighting Israel to the death.

The historic contest asked voters to weigh in on fundamental issues -- from Islam and corruption to peacemaking efforts -- and dealt Fatah a blow 14 months after the death of its founder and leader, Yasser Arafat. Hamas's strong showing could give Palestinian governance more street credibility but make it harder to disarm militant groups.

The 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council is the legislative branch of the Palestinian Authority, the governing body for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel captured in the 1967 war. Although the parliament will not replace authority president Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader who was elected separately last year, it must approve Cabinet members and could set the tone for peacemaking efforts as well as for governance in Gaza, which is enjoying a degree of autonomy after Israeli troops pulled out last summer.

Celebratory gunfire could be heard last night across Gaza City. Earlier, voters pushed their way into polling stations through forests of flags held up by party loyalists in color-coded baseball caps -- yellow for Fatah, green for Hamas.

Fatah champions compromise with Israel but is widely viewed as stagnant and corrupt. Hamas has offered Palestinians their first coherent alternative to Fatah but is listed as a terrorist organization by the US government.

''It's time to change, for good," declared Luai Matta, 22, a university student who voted in Jabaliya, outside Gaza City. He said he voted for Hamas because he thought Fatah had negotiated away too many of Palestinians' territorial demands while failing to improve their lives.

''Time will tell," he added. ''In four years we will have another election and if Hamas hasn't performed well, they will lose."

The results contradicted numerous exit polls of voters. Those surveys showed Fatah winning the election, but not gaining enough seats to form a majority in the parliament.

The largest exit poll, which surveyed 18,000 voters, suggested Fatah won 42 percent of the vote and Hamas 35 percent, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points. It was conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, considered the most reliable tracker of Palestinian opinion.

Those figures reflect only the nationwide party-list voting that determines half the seats in parliament.

Another poll, of 4,000 voters by Bir Zeit University, showed Fatah with 46.4 percent of the vote and Hamas with 39.5 percent. That would translate into 63 seats for Fatah and 58 seats for Hamas, with a one-seat margin of error, the pollsters said.

The percentage of seats is higher than the percentage of votes because smaller parties that fail to garner 2 percent will be disqualified.

No major violence was reported during the vote. Though frequent clashes among Fatah militants marred the campaign season, rival militias declared they would not disrupt the election.

About 17,000 local poll-watchers and hundreds of observers monitored the vote. The National Democracy Institute, a US-funded group that coordinated observers, including former president Jimmy Carter, said polling proceeded smoothly and by the book.

Hamas's surging popularity has highlighted the dilemma the United States faces across the Middle East as it promotes democracy: Voters from Iraq to Egypt are increasingly supporting parties that want to establish Islamic rule and deplore US support of Israel.

Unlike the Israeli government, the Bush administration did not ask Abbas to stop Hamas from running but said it would not meet with Hamas members of a future Palestinian government.

''We don't deal with Hamas. And under the current circumstances, I don't see that changing," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday before the results were revealed. He said US relations with the Palestinian Authority as a whole would depend on ''what kind of policies they pursue."

During the campaign, several Hamas leaders floated the possibility of talks with Israel and of what they called an interim agreement that would accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza only, rather than holding out for their usual demand to control what is now Israel. Other leaders issued fiery speeches to the party faithful in the campaign's final days vowing not to compromise.

Hamas leaders said during the campaign that even if party members join the Cabinet, they would not disarm their military wing, a key demand of the US-backed ''road map," a plan designed to restart peace negotiations. Hamas has unleashed dozens of suicide bombings against Israelis but has maintained an informal truce since February.

Abbas told reporters after voting in Ramallah he would pursue talks with Israel even if Hamas members secure Cabinet posts.

''We are partners with the Israelis. They don't have the right to choose their partner," he said. ''But if they are seeking a Palestinian partner, this partner exists."

A Hamas majority in the parliament would represent a political earthquake.

The possibility of a strong showing by Hamas has triggered impassioned international debate over whether the group's entry into the political system will force it to adopt more pragmatic policies or strengthen its hard-liners, who oppose negotiations with Israel and call for its destruction.

In Jabaliya, many voters were longtime Hamas supporters. They said they reject the compromises Fatah has proposed, such as accepting a future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem instead of all of Jerusalem, or accepting compensation for some Palestinian refugees in lieu of their right to return to what is now Israel.

But many others said they had not previously supported Hamas and were lukewarm to its vision of a state ruled by Islamic law and unending conflict with Israel. Rather, they said, they were voting for Hamas to protest Fatah's flawed governance since the 1993 Oslo Accords gave the Palestinian Authority limited rule over the West Bank and Gaza.

One such voter was Samir Okasha, 47, who was observing the election on behalf of a Fatah candidate he supports, Izzedine Abu Aish. But Okasha said he also gave his vote to five Hamas members on the district ballot, on which voters could choose multiple candidates.

''In the last 10 years we achieved nothing, only some people got rich and the rest were pushed down to the ground," he said. ''The most important thing is to have a strong opposition. When there is only one ruling party, they will make decisions to serve their own interests."

At another polling station in Gaza City, Mohammed Ibrahim said he voted for Hamas even though he works for a television station run by the Fatah government. ''Not because I support Hamas but for the sake of change," he said. ''In the USA, we see that sometimes there are Democrats and sometimes there are Republicans. So let's try something different."

He brought his son, Abdullah, 12, to the polling station. ''I brought him to show him what democracy is," Ibrahim said.

In Nablus, a West Bank city increasingly dominated by Hamas, fruit peddlers in the central market proudly brandished fingers stained with ink at the ballot box to prevent double-voting.

''The Europeans said they will cut off aid to us if we vote for Hamas," said Hamas voter Ribhi al-Kahkn, 59, standing by a pile of bananas. ''We say, keep your money. Hamas has clean hands."

Thanassis Cambanis of the Globe staff contributed to this story from Nablus and Jerusalem. Material from the Globe's wire services was used in this report.

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