Palestinian Political Landscape Changes

JERUSALEM, Jan. 26, 2006 — -- It is true to say that in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza Strip there is almost a stunned silence this morning.

A sweeping Hamas election victory is expected to be confirmed by the release of official election results later today.

The radical Islamic movement is now expected to win a comfortable majority of the 132-seat Palestinian legislative council -- not a bad result for the group's first-ever participation in democratic politics.

Hamas spokesmen are predicting that it has won at least 73 seats, and some are saying final results may deliver as many as 80. No one's polls or predictions came close to such an incredible result.

For the Palestinians and for their president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah Party, this is a political earthquake. The Palestinian political landscape has been changed beyond recognition.

The margin of the Hamas victory is perhaps the best indication of how frustrated and angry many Palestinians have become with their traditional political leadership. Many cast their votes, it is thought, to punish the corruption and political bankruptcy of the ruling Fatah party.

Hamas' victory is a challenge to both the Israelis and to U.S. policy in the region. Abbas is Washington's favorite here, with his moderate stance and anti-violence position. The results show that he has been unable to persuade the majority of his people to follow his lead. Instead it seems that the next Palestinian government will be led by an organization whose founding charter still calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.

That aggressive position has been downplayed in the Hamas campaign, but it is not clear whether its participation in government will lead to real changes in its policies.

Hamas leaders like Khaled Meschal are telling the reeling Fatah leadership they will be invited into some kind of coalition government. It is not clear yet how the defeated veterans and former comrades of Yasser Arafat's party will respond to their electoral humiliation.

On the streets of Palestinian cities and refugee camps so far today, there is calm as people try and come to terms with this morning's shocking news.

Later in Ramallah in the West Bank, the Palestinian Election Commission will announce formal results. Abbas will then address his people on television. After that, the celebrations by Hamas supporters may start for real.

In Israel, the political leadership has refrained from comment. Officials also are probably trying to digest what, for them, is the unpalatable fact of the Hamas victory. It is Hamas that has killed hundreds of Israelis with suicide bombings and shooting attacks in the latest uprising. Now Israel looks as if it must face Hamas in government throughout the Palestinian territories.