Hamas captures majority of parliament seats in Palestinian elections

The Islamic militant group Hamas captured a majority of seats in Palestinian legislative elections, officials in Hamas and the ruling Fatah Party said Thursday _ a devastating upset that is sure to throw Mideast peacemaking into turmoil. Israel and the United States have said they would not deal with a Hamas-led Palestinian government. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he would step down if he could no longer pursue his peace agenda with Israel.

Palestinian election officials confirmed that Hamas had won virtually all the seats up for grabs in electoral districts in the West Bank and Gaza. Half the seats in Wednesday's parliament vote were chosen on a national list and the other half by districts.

The Central Election Commission said the vote count had not been completed and that it would make an official announcement at 7 p.m. (1700 gmt) Thursday.

Initial exit polls on Wednesday night had forecast a slight edge for Fatah, with Hamas coming in a strong second. The polls predicted that neither Hamas nor Fatah would have enough seats to form a government alone, and would have to rely on smaller parties to form a coalition. However, on Thursday morning, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said his group had won about 70 seats in the 132-member parliament. Later in the day, another Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the number had risen to at least 75. Officials in Fatah conceded that Hamas had won about 70 seats. They spoke on condition of anonymity because counting in some districts was continuing.

The discrepancy between the exit polls and Thursday's information was apparently due to voting in districts, where Hamas was apparently able to capitalize on divisions within Fatah. A senior Fatah member, Saeb Erekat, said he could not confirm the partial results, but blamed Israel's refusal to resume peace talks with a Fatah-led government for the party's poor showing.

"Israel has declared us non-partners about four years ago and they were not speaking to our elected president," he told Israel Army Radio. "Everybody was blaming Fatah for every mistake in the world. Everybody was tying our hands and our legs and throwing us into the sea. And now I think all these things, including our mistakes in Fatah, led to this result."

Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday, before Hamas claimed victory, that Israel cannot trust a Palestinian leadership in which the Islamic group has a role, according to a statement by his office.

"Israel can't accept a situation in which Hamas, in its present form as a terror group calling for the destruction of Israel, will be part of the Palestinian Authority without disarming," Olmert told U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden in a meeting, according to Olmert's office. "I won't hold negotiations with a government that does not stick to its most basic obligation of fighting terror."

Israel is willing to help the Palestinians and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas "a great deal" but only if they crack down on militants, Olmert said. Israel has repeatedly asked Abbas to force Hamas and other militant groups to disarm but Abbas has refused, warning such an act could cause civil war. Hamas has committed dozens of suicide bombings against Israel.

U.S. President George W. Bush told The Wall Street Journal in an interview Wednesday that the United States will not deal with Hamas until it renounces its position calling for the destruction of Israel.

The election Wednesday was the Palestinians' first truly competitive vote, with Hamas contesting a parliamentary vote for the first time and winning considerable clout.

Before the vote Fatah had promised voters to clean up corruption and try to relaunch peace-making with Israel. Following the exit polls showing them winning, Fatah loyalists fired rifles out of car windows, sounded their horns and waved the yellow flag of their movement as they drove around the streets after getting word of the exit polls.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians flooded polling stations throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip for a vote that would determine how Palestinians wanted to be governed and whether they would pursue negotiations or confrontation with Israel, reports the AP. I.L.

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