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Exit Poll Shows Fatah Wins Vote, Hamas Strong Showing

By & VOA News

A total of 77 percent of voters attended Wednesday's elections to the Palestinian Authority's parliament. Vote counting is expected to be completed only by Friday, when the official results will be made known to the public.

Fatah took the lion's share of the vote but the Voice of America reported that the terrorist Islamic group Hamas looks set to gain a major share, right behind the Fatah faction. Hamas remained a strong second in the first Palestinian Authority legislative election since 1996.

Exit polls of 6,500 voters Wednesday evening showed Fatah as the winner with 43-percent of the vote and Hamas with 32-percent, according to Channel 2 television, with 25-percent divided up between the other nine parties.

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas praised voters for conducting themselves peacefully and making it to the polls. A festive atmosphere surrounded polls in most of the voting locations in East Jerusalem and several Arab towns within Israel as well as in Gaza. "This is a holiday for the Palestinians," said Fatah activist Ziad Halil, trying to get the vote out in the Jerusalem area.

Some shooting between internal factions in Ramallah was reported in the late afternoon. In addition, 12 people were injured in a scuffle between Fatah and Hamas supporters near Hebron. In southern Gaza, police fired in the air to control an unruly crowd of voters.

By 6 p.m. approximately 60 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters had come out to cast their ballots. The lowest turnout was in East Jerusalem, where only a few hundred residents had entered the voting booths.

Voting was especially heavy in Hebron, a base of support for Hamas. The terrorist organization pulled enough votes to possibly enter the PA cabinet for the first time, complicating future foreign relations with the international community.

Hamas has refused to lay down its weapons and insisted earlier in the week that it can combine its role in the new legislature and still maintain armed "resistance."

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine focused its entire campaign on the murder of former Israeli Minister Rehavam Ze'evi. Senior PFLP official and candidate Khaled Bakir told Ynet news service on Wednesday that murder 'brings plenty of support'. Bakir, age 50, served 11 years in an Israeli prison, nine of which he served in administrative detention. He was released a year and a half ago.

More than 400 candidates from 11 parties ran for seats in the new PA governing body in the first election since 1996. Islamic Jihad was the only faction that did not participate.

Some 13,000 police officers were on hand to keep the peace, enforce a weapons ban and ensure a fair vote at the 1008 polling stations. A team of more than 900 foreign observers, led by former President Jimmy Carter, also participated as election monitors,

Palestinian journalist Khalil Assali told VOA from Ramallah that he witnessed a strong sense of excitement among voters. "People, they just want to go to and vote. It seems that for them, this is something they have to be a part of. So, it is as a lot of Palestinians keep saying that today [Wednesday] is a Palestinian wedding party, meaning that everybody is celebrating, everybody is there. This is really what I've seen," he said.

A strong Hamas showing would indicate the group's call for change and reform clearly resonated with many voters, who were disappointed with the long-time rule of Fatah - a party tainted by allegations of mismanagement and widespread corruption.

While many Palestinians say Hamas' participation in the political process is a good sign for democracy, others fear that the Islamic group could try to impose its fundamentalist views on the entire population. Israel said it would not negotiate with Hamas. And in Washington, the Bush administration welcomed Wednesday's elections, but reaffirmed it would not deal with the radical Islamic group Hamas.

The international Quartet on the Middle East will discuss the election results next Monday in London. Bush administration officials are making no specific threats about what will happen if Hamas becomes part of the Palestinian cabinet.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said he could not say what the U.S. approach would be to the next Palestinian government until its composition and policies had been announced.

He said the United States does not foresee its approach to Hamas changing, and he said it will be up to the Palestinians to deal with the fundamental contradiction posed by a group that he said wants to have one foot in politics and the other in terrorism.

"You can't have armed militias running around in a democracy outside the rule of law, which is the situation that you have now," noted McCormack. "That of course needs to change. That is of course what is called for in the 'road map,' that is what the Quartet has very clearly stated. So again as for what the future Palestinian authority looks like, we'll see. But in terms of our views of the matter, we'll be guided by the principles that have been outlined in the Quartet statement as well as the road map and the statements from the secretary [of state].

McCormack noted that Hamas campaigned for office on a platform of good governance and not on its record of violence. However he said it does not necessarily follow that Hamas would undergo a peaceful transformation if it actually got into the business of governing, though he said the entire Palestinian political scene is in a period of transition.

Though Israel, the U.S., and the European Union have accused Hamas of being a terrorist organization, Hamas is winning widespread support for its political message. Hamas officially calls for the destruction of Israel and it's waged an armed struggle to bring that about. But now it's fighting a political battle for hearts, minds and votes.

So why is Hamas suddenly embracing mainstream politics? He says, "Because everything changed. Everything changed." Changed -- after the Israelis withdrew from Gaza last year, razing their settlements to the ground in the process. The rubble of Israeli settlers homes litters the landscape here and Hamas sees this as fertile soil in which to lay political roots.

Hamad said, "Really, we are not radical organization and we are not extremist fundamentalists. We are an open-minded organization that believes in democracy and freedom and political pluralization. I think we can create a new society."

Critics of Hamas disagree. Though its candidates campaigned in Gaza amid a sea of green banners, scarves and hats, the organization remains widely accused of having blood on its hands. It's honored a ceasefire for more than a year, but its leaders won't rule out a possible resumption of rocket and suicide attacks against Israel once the election ends. "Their children are sleeping and dreaming sweet dreams," said Hamad, "and we are suffering from everything."

Will Hamas push, for example, to Islamicize Palestinians' largely secular society? Salah Abdel Shafi, a political analyst, shared his analysis. "If Hamas wants to be part of a new Palestinian democratic political system, Hamas has to abide by the rules of the game, which means there is only one authority, one security force, and it has to dissolve its armed wing."

Also at issue here, the future of international aid to the Palestinian Authority. Lawmakers in both the U.S. and Europe say they don't want to deal with terrorists in government. But Hamas said its thinking is evolving and so must the global view of an organization whose bloodied hands are now edging closer to the levers of political power.

Former Israeli Chief of Staff: PA Won't Recognize Any Borders


Speaking at the Herzliya Conference, ex-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon warned that the time-honored phrase "territories for peace" has no practical relevance for the Palestinian Authority.

"In light of the fact that the PA does not fulfill its obligations," Yaalon said Wednesday, "Israel's point of departure is that any border that will be chosen, will be violated by violent activity - unless Israel manages to create significant deterrence."

Yaalon related to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the reports that the Kadima Party favors additional such moves. He said that they are damaging to Israel's deterrence ability because "they are interpreted by the other side as weakness."

Regarding the Kassam rockets fired almost daily from Gaza towards the Negev and Ashkelon areas, the former Chief of Staff said, "Israel has not created reliable deterrence against this threat. Israel's unilateral withdrawals are interpreted as a running away from this threat... Gaza is turning, in front of our very eyes, into Qaedastan and Hamastan. The bottom line of this analysis," Yaalon concluded, "is that for the foreseeable future, the '67 borders are not defensible."

Iran: Israel Will Be Put In 'Eternal Coma' If It Attacks Nuclear Sites

By News Agencies

Were Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran would respond so strongly that it would put the Jewish state into "an eternal coma" like Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's, the Iranian defense minister said Wednesday.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would not accept Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons under any circumstances. He stopped short of threatening a military strike against Iran - as Israel destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 - but he said Israel was preparing for the possible failure of diplomatic negotiations with Iran.

A newscaster on Iranian state television read out a response from Iran's minister of defense, Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, on Wednesday. "Zionists should know that if they do anything evil against Iran, the response of Iran's armed forces will be so firm that it will send them into eternal coma, like Sharon," Najjar said.

Sharon suffered a massive stroke on January 4 and has been in a coma ever since. Najjar said the United States and Israel have been trying to frighten Iran, but neither country would dare attack to Iran. Israel views Iran as its biggest threat and has joined the U.S. in accusing the Islamic republic of trying to produce a nuclear bomb. Iran denies the allegation and says the sole aim of its nuclear program is to generate electricity.

Iran has been under increasing international pressure to halt its nuclear program. On January 10, Iran broke the seals of the United Nations nuclear agency at its main uranium enrichment plant and resumed small-scale enrichment - a process that can produce the fuel for nuclear reactors or the material for atomic bombs.

The step provoked strong protests in Europe, which has been negotiating with Iran, and the U.S. It also sparked moves to refer Iran's nuclear file to the UN Security Council, which could impose sanctions on the country.

Israel has consistently refrained from confirming press reports that it has about 200 nuclear warheads deployed on ballistic missiles, aircraft and submarines.

Foreign ministers of the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany will meet on Monday to seek consensus on Iran's disputed atomic work before a meeting of the UN nuclear watchdog, a senior diplomat said.

He said Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany would strive to overcome differences before the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) holds an emergency meeting on Iran in Vienna on Feb. 2.

The United States and its European allies want the IAEA to refer Iran to the Security Council for possible sanctions. Russia and China are urging caution, preferring something like an IAEA statement of concern about Iran without a referral now.

"There are still differences, certainly, and things are still in flux, but we are not too far apart. We need to agree on a common approach," the senior diplomat said, asking not to be identified because of the delicacy of current consultations.

The New York Times reported from Vienna that IAEA officials had flown to Tehran on Tuesday where it said they would give Iran a last chance to cooperate fully with the agency's demands on the country's past nuclear activities.

It quoted agency officials as saying Olli Heinonen, deputy director general for safeguards, would press demands for access to a former military site in Tehran, information about Iran's dealings with an international nuclear black market and information about possible work related to nuclear weapons.

Britain, France and Germany, negotiating with Iran on behalf of the European Union with U.S. support, broke off talks this month after Tehran removed IAEA seals on uranium enrichment equipment and announced it was resuming nuclear fuel research.

The West suspects Iran of seeking nuclear weapons under cover of a civilian atomic program. Tehran denies this.

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