Palestinian leader receives mixed views

By Ravi Nessman The Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Islamic militant Hamas’ landslide victory in Palestinian elections unnerved the world yesterday, darkening prospects for Mideast peace and ending four decades of rule by the corruption-riddled Fatah Party.

The victory stunned even Hamas leaders, who mounted a well-organized campaign but have no experience in government. They offered to share power with President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah chief, who said he may go around the new government to talk peace with Israel.

Underscoring the tensions between the secular Fatah and fundamentalist Hamas, about 3,000 supporters of the militant group marched through Ramallah and raised their party’s green flag over the Palestinian parliament. Fatah supporters tried to lower the banner. The two sides fought for about 30 minutes, throwing stones and breaking windows in the building.

Abbas had yet to decide how closely to work with a group that built its clout through suicide bombings. But his Fatah Party decided not to join a Hamas government, Fatah legislator Saab Erekat said.

“We will be a loyal opposition and rebuild the party,” Erekat said after meeting with Abbas.

Leaders across the world demanded that Hamas, which is branded a terror group by the U.S. and European Union, renounce violence and

recognize Israel.

“If your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you’re not a partner in peace, and we’re interested in peace,” President Bush said.

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas members, and senior Cabinet officials held an emergency meeting to discuss the repercussions of the vote. Acting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asked the EU not to deal with a “terror government.”

Hamas leaders immediately took to the international – and even Israeli – airwaves to send out a moderate message.

“Don’t be afraid,” Ismail Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, told the BBC.

Mahmoud Zahar, another Hamas leader, said the group would extend its year-old truce if Israel reciprocates. “If not, then I think we will have no option but to protect our people and our land,” he said.

At a victory news conference late yesterday, however, Haniyeh said Hamas will “complete the liberation of other parts of Palestine.” He did not say which territories he was referring to or how he would go about it.

Hamas has largely adhered to the cease-fire declared last February, while a smaller militant group, Islamic Jihad, carried out six suicide bombings against Israelis during that period.

Abbas said he remained committed to peace talks and suggested they be conducted through the Palestine Liberation Organization rather than the Palestinian Authority. That could help him sidestep a Hamas-run government in peace talks.

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

Hamas won a clear majority in Wednesday’s vote, capturing 76 of the 132 seats in parliament, according to official, near-complete results released yesterday. One election official calculated the percentage of the popular vote for each party, but officials later said the calculations were not complete.

Four victorious independents were also backed by Hamas. Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian political life since the 1960s but alienated voters because of rampant corruption, got 43 seats. The remaining seats went to smaller parties.

Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Cabinet resigned to make room for a Hamas-led government.

The Islamic group quickly reached out to Abbas to try to work out a partnership, Haniyeh said, adding that he did not expect the Palestinian leader, who was elected last year, to resign.

Hamas leaders had said before the vote they would be content to be a junior partner in the next government. The group campaigned mainly on cleaning up the Palestinian Authority – downplaying the conflict with Israel – and Zahar said yesterday that Hamas planned to overhaul the government.

“We are going to change every aspect, as regards the economy, as regards industry, as regards agriculture, as regards social aid, as regards health, administration, education,” he said.

Some experts believed the Hamas victory would force it to moderate. Others feared it would embolden the group to remake Palestinian life in keeping with its strict interpretation of Islam.

“We don’t want the Palestinian people and cause to be isolated. We don’t want a theocracy,” said independent lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi. “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.”

Hamas’ victory was cheered in the Arab world, though many said they feared the group would become even more radical under pressure from its hard-line backers, Syria and Iran.

The rise of Hamas was certain to be a key issue in Israel’s March 28 election.

“Today, Hamastan was formed, a representative of Iran and in the image of the Taliban,” said Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party. Labor Party politician Ami Ayalon, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, said Israel might have to change the route of its West Bank security barrier because of the Hamas victory.

Immediately upon taking power, Hamas will be confronted with an avalanche of issues, including what to do about the Palestinian security services, which are comprised of hard-core Fatah members, said Basem Ezbidi, a political science professor at the West Bank’s Bir Zeit University. “It’s not going to be easy for Hamas to govern these bodies,” he said.