Middle East

Hamas Appears to Win Majority in Palestinian Elections

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Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya waves during a press conference in Gaza City Jan. 26.

Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya waves during a press conference in Gaza City Jan. 26. Getty Images hide caption

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Unofficial results from Wednesday's Palestinian elections give the Islamist Hamas movement a majority of the seats in parliament. The unexpected results are a political earthquake, and a sharp challenge to the previously dominant Fatah movement, the United States and Israel.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR news, I'm Renee Montagne. President Bush says there will be no change in U.S. policy, following the victory of Hamas in yesterday's Palestinian elections. The Islamist militant group is a sworn enemy of Israel. It won a majority of seats in the new Palestinian Parliament, an upset for the ruling Fatah movement.

This morning, President Bush called the election result a wake up call for the old Palestinian leadership.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And so, the elections, um, should open the eyes of the, the old guard, there, and, and, uh, in the Palestinian territories. I like their, I, I like the competition of ideas. I like people who have to go out and say, vote for me, and here's what I'm gonna do. There's something healthy, and, uh, about a system that does that, and so, uh, the, the elections yesterday were very interesting.

On the other hand, I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part as your, of, of your platform. And I know you can't be a partner in peace if you have a, if your party has got an, uh, a armed wing.

MONTAGNE: President Bush, speaking moments ago at the White House. The unexpected vicoty of Hamas is a major upheavel in Middle East politics, and a sharp challenge to the previously dominant Fatah movement, the United States, and Israel. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:

In the Hamas campaign headquarters in the town of Al Dira(ph), next to Ramallah, party activists tracked every potential voter, making sure he or she knew where to vote, and providing transportation. These organizational efforts appear to have brought Hamas an even stronger showing than was expected.

Dr. Mahmood Ramaji, an anesthesiologist, who could become a Hamas cabinet minister in the next Palestinian government, says Hamas is now a major force in Palestinian politics.

DR. MAHMOOD RAMAJI (Anesthesiologist, citizen of Palestine): We were part of the future here in Palestine, and anyone who was interested in the future of this area, you have to be with us.

GRADSTEIN: Hamas has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel over the past five years. At the same time, Hamas has largely observed a year long cease fire. Some Hamas leaders have said the cease fire could be extended, but Dr. Ramaji says Hamas will not give up its guns as long as Israel continues its occupation.

Dr. RAMAJI: Our position is clear, we have to continue our military resistance and political resistance to put on with this occupation.

GRADSTEIN: Exit polls had showed Fatah with a narrow lead over Hamas. Fatah activists celebrated in the streets of Gaza over night, honking horns and setting off firecrackers.

(Soundbite of fireworks)

GRADSTEIN: As the votes were counted, it became clear that Hamas had won virtually all of Gaza, Hebron, Janin, Tulkarem, and even four out of five seats from Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas' government, and traditionally a Fatah stronghold.

Before the results were announced, Palestinian officials had promised they would accept whatever the Palestinian people decide. Rafik Husseini is the chief of staff for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. RAFIK HUSSEINI (Mahmoud Abbas' Chief of Staff, Palestine): Absolutely, absolutely it's part of democracy to honor the results and making sure, first of all, that everybody has been included, Hamas and others, in the electoral process was very important, and high turnout. And when the results come out, we have to honor them and accept them and deal with them and their consequences.

GRADSTEIN: However, all of the parties involved, including Hamas, seem unprepared to deal with the consequences of the Hamas victory. Former President Jimmy Carter, who came at the head of an international observer team to oversee the Palestinian elections, said he hopes Hamas will change its position.

JIMMY CARTER (Former President, United States):

My sincere hope, my prayer is that if Hamas does assume a position in the government, in addition to the Parliament, that they would be willing to agree in advance to modify their policies, to accept the two state solution to the arguments here. To recognize Israel's right to exist, and to forego violence against innocent civilians as part of their commitment.

GRADSTEIN: Some Palestinian officials, like Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian representative in Britain, say Hamas is likely to change its position towards Israel.

Mr. MANUEL HASSIEN (Palestinian Representative, Britain): If Hamas becomes an integral part of the (unintelligible) council, and if it becomes to form a government, whether it forms its own in coalition with Fatah, they have to stick to the rules of the game, and they understand very well that they have to transform, politically, their positions. And they have to understand that there is no other outlet except negotiations with Israel.

GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials seem stunned by the Hamas victory. Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened urgent consultations later today.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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