Hamas wins landslide 76 seats in parliament

By Anne Barnard and Thanassis Cambanis
Globe Staff / January 26, 2006

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—The entire Palestinian cabinet resigned today following Hamas's stunning landslide victory in Palestinian legislative elections.

Election officials released preliminary results showing the militant group won 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, which must approve the cabinet of the Palestinian Authority, the governing body for the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Now, the militant group that has long sworn to destroy Israel and castigated Palestinian officials as collaborators must make an unprecedented transition from feared outsider to principal player in Palestinian governance.

Hamas leaders said they would reach out to other Palestinian factions to join the cabinet, including Fatah, the party that up to now enjoyed near-total control of the Palestinian Authority.

But Hamas – as well as Israel and the international community – must face complicated questions about its new role. Its victory gives Hamas authority over Palestinian security forces even as it maintains a separate military wing that it adamantly refuses to disarm. And it raises concerns about the future of already-stalled negotiations with Israel, which says it will not talk to Hamas until it drops its demand for the Jewish state's obliteration.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected last year in a separate popular vote, will keep his post under Palestinian law. He threatened last week to resign if he is blocked from pursuing negotiations with Israel. But today, his spokesman said the president plans to work with the parliament to form a new cabinet.

"All parties should respect the elections results because they express the free will of the Palestinian people," said the spokesman, Nabil Abu Iredeineh.

Ziad Abu Amr, who won a seat in Gaza City as an independent candidate with Hamas backing, said that if Abbas remains in office he could harness Hamas' mandate to advance his agenda of reforming the inefficient Authority and fighting corruption.

"This is Abu Mazen's golden opportunity to launch a serious reform program with Hamas' full backing," said Abu Amr, who has frequently acted as a go-between in negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and militant factions.

Israeli cabinet officials held emergency meetings but made no public statements, but Israeli analysts were divided over whether the Hamas victory would destroy all prospects for a peace agreement or create a newly legitimate Palestinian government that would be more hostile but better able to deliver on any eventual deal.

Shalom Harari, a reserve brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces who spent 20 years advising Israel's defense ministry on Palestinian affairs, said the country is better off with threatening but popular groups like Hamas as part of the Palestinian Authority.

"It's better to have these people inside than outside," he said.

Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization claimed to be the "sole representative" of the Palestinian people when it signed the 1993 Oslo Accords with Israel, but agreed to the deal over the objections of Hamas, which could then act as spoiler, Harari said.

"That is what torpedoed Oslo," he said. With a government that includes Hamas, he said, "We better know who we are facing and what we are up against."

Other analysts said the Hamas victory proves that there is no viable Palestinian partner for peace negotiations and will push Israel to further separate from the Palestinians and pursue unilateral moves such as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip last summer.

"This election shows that the Palestinian sentiment is for war, not for peace and confirms Sharon's approach," said Doron Ben-Atar, a Middle East history professor at New York's Fordham University. "Israel must act unilaterally. There was no partner and there never was."

Palestinians fear that such unilateral moves will allow Israel to draw the borders of a future Palestinian state without consulting them.

In Gaza yesterday, Fatah supporters who had celebrated with gunfire in the streets last night when early returns seemed to show a narrow victory woke up to an ugly surprise.

Hamas supporters in green baseball caps gathered around party offices to celebrate. At the house of Sa'id Abu Siyam, one of the winning candidates, small boys passed out logs of baklava and coffee warmed over a coal fire as well-wishers gathered to congratulate him.

Siyam is one of several Hamas leaders who during the campaign hinted that the party might moderate its stance and consider negotiating with Israel or integrating its militants into the security forces – positions rejected by other more hardline leaders within the party.

Today, he said the party must discuss those issues internally and with other factions.

"We will mix resistance with politics," he said, noting that as the longtime ruling party, Fatah maintained a militant wing, the Al Aqsa Brigades, that carried out suicide bombings against Israel alongside Hamas, even as Fatah led official dealings with Israel.

He said Hamas was committed to a pluralistic government and that its victory stemmed from Palestinian disgust with Fatah's nepotism and favoritism.

"It was wrong to have only one party in power," he said.

Mohammed al-Bayah, 51, a campaign manager in the Nasser neighborhood of Gaza City, celebrated with a crowd of teenagers and small boys who had worked as campaign volunteers, who threw candy in the air. He attributed the victory to the discipline and "Islamic education" of the volunteers.

"All our lives we have worked for this victory," he said, beaming.

Some voters were horrified, fearing Hamas would try to impose its vision of an Islamic state.

"We should emigrate," said Ilias Jubran, 60, a Christian alcohol wholesaler from Ramallah in the West Bank, where his factory producing arak, a traditional Arabic liquor, has been burned down twice in what he believes are attacks by Islamists. "This is not a normal society."

But Nabil Islim, whose shop in Gaza sells see-through red nightgowns and leopard-print silk camisoles, said he voted for Hamas to support reform and wasn't worried that it would impose social restrictions.

He said Hamas should focus on strengthening Palestinian society from within to give it a stronger position against Israel. He first echoed the party line against negotiations, but then said they would be acceptable if conducted by a strong Palestinian Authority.

"The former government was weak, so they wanted to negotiate. They ran after the Israelis, but the Israelis didn't respond to them," he said. "Now I am sure the Israelis will run after Hamas, because Hamas is strong.

As for his shop, he added, "Hamas people buy the most."

Hamas is now unexpectedly in the driver's seat, said Ali Jarbawi, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University near Ramallah.

Jarbawi has predicted another mass outbreak of Palestinian violence, as a result of Israel's unilateral moves and the failure of negotiations to achieve tangible quality of life or political victories for the Palestinian Authority.

"This is an earthquake," he said of the Hamas victory, even though he was one of few analysts to predict before the election that Hamas would tie Fatah in the number of seats in the legislature. He said he hadn't expected an outright Hamas victory.

Hamas' strong showing signals that the group attracted not only those disaffected with the PA, but commanded deep support from Islamists and others who actively support Hamas' policy.

"It means that Hamas has not only the vote from those dismayed by Fatah's actions in the Authority, but it has the support of the street," Jarbawi said. "Now it's their choice. They have the majority."

If Abu Mazen resigns – which he might, given a promise last week to quite if the Palestinian public rejected his program – the PA would fall into a crisis. The PA's basic law says the speaker of the sitting parliament would take over as acting president. "The whole Authority might crumble," Jarbawi said.

With Hamas slated to dominate the government, the future of foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority will be thrown into question.

According to the World Bank, Palestinians received $1.1 billion in foreign assistance last year, much of it funneled through the UN.

The Palestinian Authority depends almost entirely on foreign aid and tax revenue refunded to it by Israel; both are sources of revenue that can be readily cut off.

Both Washington and the European Union said in the leadup to the elections that they stop direct aid to the Palestinian Authority if Hamas took control.

In 2005, nearly a third of the Palestinian Authority's $1.5 billion in spending was covered by foreign aid and commercial bank loans. A December 2005 World Bank report said that the Palestinian Authority was on track to run a $900 million deficit this year – a situation the report described as untenable.

(Globe correspondent Sa'id Ghazali contributed to this story from Ramallah and Cambanis from Jerusalem.)