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Anticipating Hamas Victory, Palestinian Cabinet Resigns

Anticipating Hamas Victory, Palestinian Cabinet Resigns
Steven Erlanger & Greg Myre, New York Times

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, and his
government submitted their resignations Thursday as the radical Islamic
faction Hamas appeared to have scored a major upset and defeated the
ruling Fatah party in parliamentary elections.

However, no official results were expected until Thursday evening.

Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for decades, was favored
in Wednesday's election and exit polls released after the polls closed
projected Fatah as the winner by a narrow margin.

But on Thursday morning, Hamas leaders claimed their own count showed that
the group was winning an outright majority in the 132-seat Palestinian
Legislative Council. Sixty-seven seats are needed for a majority, and
Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas leader, said the group expected to control at least

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission had not released any results
as of Thursday afternoon, but said preliminary figures would be announced
in the evening.

Fatah did not formally concede defeat, but in announcing his resignation,
Mr. Qurei, seemed to indicate a Hamas victory was likely.

"If it's true, then the president should ask Hamas to form a new
government," Mr. Qurei said. "For me, personally, I sent my resignation."

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah
leader, was elected a year ago and his position is not affected by
Wednesday's vote. However, Mr. Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, wants
to restart peace negotiations with Israel, and there is no realistic
possibility of that happening if Hamas leads the next Palestinian

Israel calls Hamas a terrorist group and has always refused to deal with
the organization. Contacts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority
are already limited and fraught with difficulty, and would only become
more so with Hamas in the Palestinian government.

The acting prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, said on Wednesday that
his country could not accept a situation in which Hamas would be part of
the Palestinian Authority if the group remained armed with unchanged

"I will not negotiate with a government that does not meet its most basic
obligations to fight terrorism," Mr. Olmert said in a meeting with Sen.
Joseph R. Biden, Democrat of Delaware. "We are prepared to assist the
Palestinians and Abu Mazen very much but they must meet their

While claiming victory, Hamas leaders continued to be vague about their
plans. If Hamas does have a majority in parliament, it could lead the
government without any coalition partners. Hamas says it is willing to
work with Fatah and other factions, but has not provided details.

Mr. Haniya said Hamas would hold "intensive discussions" with Mr. Abbas
and Fatah. "The main principal of Hamas is political partnership. We
should work together."

Mr. Haniya, who held the top position on the Palestinian election list,
said that Mr. Abbas had nothing to show for his attempts to relaunch

"After one year, what has Abu Mazen achieved? What has he been offered by
the Israelis? Nothing," Mr. Haniya said in a press conference at his home
in the Beach Refugee Camp in Gaza City. "The problem was not Hamas or the
Palestinian resistance. The problem was with the occupation."

Hamas, which was formed nearly two decades ago, calls for Israel's
destruction and has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in recent
years. Hamas has largely abided by a truce announced early last year,
though the group says it is not prepared to lay down its weapons.

Asked if Hamas was willing to consider negotiations with Israel, Mr.
Haniya said, "The occupation must first recognize our rights and the
international community must exert pressure on them."

After the polls closed Wednesday night, some Fatah supporters, thinking
that their party had won, staged celebrations in the streets and fired
guns into the air.

On Thursday, as it appeared that Hamas was winning, cities in the West
Bank and the Gaza Strip were calm as of the afternoon.

The election itself went off smoothly, with little trouble at any of the
more than 1,000 polling stations or in East Jerusalem, where Israel
allowed Palestinians to cast "absentee ballots" in post offices.

About 900 foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and
the former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, monitored the voting. In a
preliminary assessment, an official from a United States delegation called
the voting "generally smooth, with sporadic violence and a robust

The exit polls on Wednesday night, like the pre-election surveys, showed
Fatah winning by several percentage points.


An exit poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
showed Fatah winning 42 percent of the national vote and Hamas 35 percent,
with a margin of sampling error of 2 percentage points.

Another such survey from Birzeit University indicated that Fatah would get
46 percent of the vote to Hamas's 39 percent.

However, in some district election races, which account for half the seats
in the new parliament, an official Fatah candidate and several independent
candidates with Fatah links may have split the vote, allowing the Hamas
candidate to win.

Eleven separate parties and blocs took part in the election, though it
appeared Hamas and Fatah captured all but a handful of seats. The voting
marked just the second Palestinian parliamentary election. In the first
ballot, in 1996, Fatah was led by Yasir Arafat and faced no real

Hamas boycotted that poll, calling the Palestinian Authority and its
legislature a creation of the Oslo Accords, the 1993 interim peace
agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which Hamas rejected.

Hamas maintained this position until last year, when it began competing in
municipal elections and fared well with a promise to provide basic
services that had been widely neglected by incumbents, most of them tied
to Fatah. Encouraged by those results, Hamas decided to run in the
parliamentary polls.

Before the election, there was speculation that Hamas might take some
cabinet positions in service or welfare ministries, thus joining the
government, but in jobs that would not necessarily require contact with

But if Hamas's outright majority is confirmed, the group may want, and
would be entitled to, a full range of ministries, including the prime
minister's post.

The Palestinian Authority is committed, under the internationally backed
peace plan known as the road map, to dismantling armed militias and
"terrorist capabilities and infrastructure."

But inside the government or out, Hamas is considered likely to keep Mr.
Abbas from pursuing serious negotiations with Israel on any basis that
Israel is likely to accept.

The United States and the European Union also label Hamas a terrorist
organization. While American and European officials say they will not meet
or deal with Hamas officials, they will continue to have close relations
with Mr. Abbas, much as they do in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, a radical
Islamic party, has cabinet representation.

Mr. Abbas pressed for these elections against considerable opposition from
inside Fatah, convinced that the only way to tame Hamas and turn it from
an armed militia to a political party was through representative

A normally stiff and shy man, Mr. Abbas looked positively happy on
Wednesday as he voted with his wife and then posed for the television

"We are so happy with this election festival," he said.

Palestinians were festive, too, coming out in large numbers to vote in an
election they understood to be a vital moment for their own history.
Turnout was estimated by officials at nearly 78 percent of the 1.3 million
eligible voters.

Mr. Abbas also had words of calm for Israel on Wednesday. "The Israelis
should have no reason to be fearful but rather pleased as we are building
a democracy which can serve as a base for peace between us," he said. "I
am always ready for negotiations with the Israelis although they must want
them on their side."

Israel is engaged in its own election campaign and with Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon still comatose after a massive stroke, it is not likely any
time soon to talk to any government containing Hamas representatives. The
Hamas showing and what should now be done will be a major issue in the
Israeli campaign, which ends March 28.