RAMALLAH, West Bank – Hamas won a huge majority in parliamentary elections as Palestinian voters rejected the longtime rule of the Fatah Party, throwing the future of Mideast peacemaking into question, officials from both major parties said Thursday.
Palestinian leaders huddled to determine what role the Islamic militant group will play in governing the territories.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will ask Hamas to form the next government, with his defeated Fatah Party weighing whether to form a partnership or serve in the opposition.
A Hamas government, without Fatah as a moderating force, would greatly complicate Abbas' efforts to restart peace talks.
The Islamic militants, who carried out dozens of suicide bombings and seek Israel's destruction, have said they oppose peace talks and will not disarm. Israel and the United States refuse to deal with Hamas.
The top Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, told Abbas his group is ready for a political partnership, Hamas said.
Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat said the party does not want to join a Hamas government.
"We will be a loyal opposition and rebuild the party," Erekat said, after meeting with Abbas.
But Nabil Shaath, another senior Fatah lawmaker, said the party's leadership would make a decision later in the day.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Abbas to praise Palestinian democracy and say the United States supports him and his policies, his office said.
"She asserted to him that U.S. administration will continue supporting the elected president and his policies," said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an Abbas aide.
Abbas was elected separately a year ago and remains president. However, the Palestinian leader has said he would resign if he could no longer pursue his peace agenda. The Cabinet and legislature must approve any major initiative by Abbas, giving Hamas tremendous influence over peace moves.
Aides said he planned a major speech Thursday night, after final results are announced by the Central Election Commission.
Acknowledging the Hamas victory, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Cabinet ministers resigned Thursday — hours before official results were released.
"This is the choice of the people. It should be respected," Qureia said. "If it's true, then the president should ask Hamas to form a new government." The Cabinet remained in office in a caretaker capacity.
International observers, led by former President Carter, said the elections were "well administered."
Hamas supporters streamed into the streets to celebrate victory. In Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, Hamas loyalists shot in the air and handed out candy. Others honked horns and waved Hamas flags from car windows.
Israeli officials declined comment, but senior security officials gathered Thursday to discuss the results. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert scheduled talks with senior officials later in the day.
Olmert said Wednesday, before Hamas claimed victory, that Israel cannot trust a Palestinian leadership in which the Islamic group has a role.
"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 said in a statement issued by his office.
President Bush told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday that the United States will not deal with Hamas until it renounces its position calling for the destruction of Israel.
Reactions to the Hamas victory streamed in from around the world.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, according to news reports, called it a "very, very, very bad result."
Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU external relations commissioner, said Hamas must be "ready to work for peace" with Israel if it joins the Palestinian government.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan congratulated the Palestinian people on the peaceful legislative elections, which he said was an important step toward a Palestinian state.
Hamas capitalized on widespread discontent with years of Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness. Much of its campaign focused on internal Palestinian issues, while playing down the conflict with Israel.
Before the election, Hamas had suggested it would be content as a junior partner in the next government, thus avoiding a decision on its relationship with Israel.
Throughout the campaign, leaders sent mixed signals, hinting they could be open to some sort of accommodation with Israel. Its apparent victory will now force it to take a clearer position on key issues, including whether to abandon its violent ideology.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas candidate who won election in the northern Gaza Strip, said peace talks and recognition of Israel are "not on our agenda" but the group is ready for a partnership — presumably with Abbas.
Palestinian election officials confirmed early Thursday that Hamas had won a large majority of the seats up for grabs in electoral districts in the West Bank and Gaza. It was the first time Hamas has contested a parliamentary vote.
Half the seats in Wednesday's parliament vote were chosen on a national list and the other half by districts. While the national voting appeared to be close, election officials said Hamas had won a large majority in the district races. Hamas apparently took advantage of divisions in Fatah; the long-ruling party fielded multiple candidates in many districts, splitting the Fatah vote.
Initial exit polls had forecast a slight edge for Fatah, with Hamas coming in a strong second. The polls predicted that neither party would have a majority and would have to rely on smaller parties to form a coalition.
However, on Thursday morning, Hamas officials said the group had won up to 75 seats — giving it a solid majority in the 132-member parliament.
Officials in Fatah conceded that Hamas had won at least 70 seats, or enough to rule alone. They spoke on condition of anonymity because counting in some districts was continuing.
Palestinian pollsters were at a loss to explain the discrepancy between the exit polls and the reality. It may have been partly due to a reluctance by some voters to admit to pollsters that they were abandoning the ruling party.
Also, the errors appeared especially glaring in the district races, where smaller numbers of voters were polled.
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who apparently was re-elected on a moderate platform, said the Hamas victory was a dramatic turning point. She said she is concerned the militants will now impose their fundamentalist social agenda and lead the Palestinians into international isolation.
She said Fatah's corruption, Israel's tough measures and international indifference to the plight of the Palestinians were to blame for Hamas' strong showing.
Washington miscalculated in pushing for the vote, as part of its pro-democracy campaign in the Arab world, she said.
"The Americans insisted on having the election now, so they have to respect the results of the election, as we all do," she 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.
Turnout for Wednesday's vote was heavy, with nearly 78 percent of 1.3 million eligible voters casting ballots.