- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party eked out a narrow victory over the militant movement Hamas in parliamentary elections yesterday but will be unable to govern alone, exit polls showed.

The news sent carloads of Fatah faithful streaming into Gaza City’s central square to celebrate, firing guns and honking horns in a deafening display. Hamas followers were strangely absent from the streets, even in their political stronghold.

Nevertheless, Hamas’ strong challenge to the long-ruling party of Yasser Arafat in its first attempt at parliamentary politics is bound to change the face of Palestinian politics and the Middle East peace process.

To achieve a legislative majority, Mr. Abbas will have to choose between forming an unstable coalition government with smaller independent parties or forming a broad coalition with Hamas — which has transformed itself from a small militant underground group dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Both Israel and the United States have refused to deal with a government that includes Hamas until it renounces violence and abandons a constitution that calls for Israel’s destruction.

“You’re getting a sense of how I’m going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility,” President Bush said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published yesterday. “And the answer is: Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you.”

Hamas in recent days had hinted at a willingness to consider a negotiated settlement with the Jewish state. But the Associated Press last night quoted Hamas’ top parliamentary candidate, Ismail Haniyeh, saying the group had no intention of laying down its arms. And another leading candidate, Mahmoud Zahar, said Hamas was “not going to change a single word” in its charter.

An exit poll by Birzeit University in Ramallah showed Fatah winning 63 seats in the 132-member parliament and Hamas taking 58 seats, the AP reported. A second survey showed Fatah beating Hamas by 58 seats to 53.

The Palestinian election commission said yesterday’s turnout was about 78 percent, compared to the 52 percent of registered voters who turned out in the 2002 U.S. congressional elections.

For Fatah and Mr. Abbas, heirs of the political movement that served as the foundation of modern Palestinian nationalism, the disappointing results are likely to deepen a crisis triggered by the death of Mr. Arafat.

“It’s not pleasant news for Fatah, and it’s encouraging news for Hamas,” said Birzeit political science professor Basem Ezbidi.

“It’s an indication that the Palestinian Liberation Organization has failed historically. This project of the PLO since 1965 did not work, and the people have chosen Hamas.”

The vote was proclaimed a “milestone” in Palestinian history by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, whose party boycotted the first parliamentary vote in 1995 because it was a direct result of the Oslo peace negotiations with Israel. The party decided not to challenge Mr. Abbas in a presidential ballot last year.

Mr. Abbas, for his part, hailed the peaceful conduct of the election, which saw largely celebratory crowds enjoying fair weather and a holiday atmosphere in which shops and offices were shut.

“We are so happy with this election festival,” said Mr. Abbas, who added that the Palestinian Authority remains a partner for peace negotiations with Israel.

In a pointed reference to Israel’s refusal to negotiate with any government that included Hamas, Mr. Abbas said it was not for the Jewish state to dictate who its counterparts are.

The hundreds of foreign election monitors who observed the voting reported few irregularities.

“People are voting in peace,” said Cypriot monitor Eleni Theochapous.

“I was monitoring elections in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Compared with the Palestinians, I don’t think there is that much of a difference. I saw homeless people voting three times. Here you can’t do that because of the ink on your hands.”

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