And so it has come to pass. Despite some early wishful thinking from Israel, Hamas – the Islamic
Resistance Movement – has swept to a position of power in
the Palestinian elections, winning 76 out of parliament’s 132 seats,
muscling out the former ruling party, Fatah, which took just 43
seats. Yesterday, the
Palestinian Authority cabinet – which has to be reappointed after the election – resigned
pre-emptively. President Mahmoud Abbas suggested he
might step down too if he is unable to pursue a peace policy with Israel.

Most Palestinians still prefer compromise with Israel
and oppose sharia law, thus going against two of Hamas’s core tenets, says The Economist. But the
party campaigned mainly on domestic issues such as corruption and welfare,
drawing widespread support. “The true winner is
Palestinian democracy,” says Palestine’s Al-Hayat A-Jadida (via BBC)… “It carried out the elections under overwhelming
conditions and under the occupation’s bayonets only to underline its historic
entitlement to a secure, stable and sovereign state.”

“Few political parties more fully deserved to lose a
democratic election
than Fatah,” says The Times – and the party’s comprehensive defeat at the hands of
Hamas, in elections that all international monitors agreed were
fair, “reflect the anger and frustration of 1.3 million Palestinian
voters at the feuding, mismanagement and corruption of the late Yasser
Arafat’s cronies.” But, the paper qualifies, “the Hamas win is, nevertheless, a huge blow to the peace process,
arguably far more serious than the incapacitating stroke of Ariel
Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister.”

The earthquake whose warning rumblings the secular
Palestinian leadership insistently refused to heed has struck, says David Horovitz in the Jerusalem Post. “The era of Fatah
is over. The Islamists have taken control.” US president George Bush appealed to Abbas to
remain in office and vowed his administration would not deal with an armed
Palestinian group that advocates Israel’s
destruction, says The Economist. Israel’s
foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, urged the European Union not to support “the
establishment of a terrorist government”. EU leaders earlier urged Hamas to
renounce violence and recognise Israel.

The key to understanding the transformation of Hamas from
terrorist group to political party is understanding the dichotomy
between how the Islamic militant group is seen by the world, and by its
own people, says Stephen Farrell in The Times. “Where the world sees a group
determined to bring down the peace
process, its supporters see no peace process to bring down. Where
Israel and Washington condemn Hamas as terrorists, many Palestinians
see its fighters as armed defenders of an otherwise-helpless people
vulnerable before the might of Israel’s superpower-funded F16s, tanks
and Apache helicopter gunships.”

Hamas will
have to take some “critical decisions about their political program in
the coming days as it becomes answerable to a population desperate for
real change,” says Al-Jazeera. And it’s likely to try to avoid a showdown with Fatah,
Israel and the rest of
the world, even if it takes over the PA, says The Economist.
A Hamas leader said that it would not
form a government alone, but seek one of national unity with other
parties. Is a partnership between Fatah and Hamas possible? Neither has
much choice, says Danny Rubinstein in Haaretz (via the BBC). The
alternative is chaos and civil war… “There is no doubt that
elections constitute an extremely important milestone in the
political life.”

But for those seeking comfort in the belief that an ascent to
government could prompt a greater sense of responsibility, a move to
moderation, don’t forget that Hamas’s intolerance is based on a
perceived religious imperative, says Horovitz. No believing Muslim, in
the Hamas conception, can be reconciled to Jewish sovereignty in the
Middle East. “And that is the ideology to which the Palestinian people,
for whatever reason and by their own free hand, have just tied their
fate. That is the guiding ideology with which Israel and the West will
now have to grapple.”