Exit polls indicate the militant Hamas movement has claimed victory over the ruling Fatah party in Palestinian elections. Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie and his cabinet have already tendered their resignations.
The official results are not out yet, but Hamas has claimed victory
The ballots were still being counted on Thursday morning when the militant Hamas group laid claim to victory in the first Palestinian parliamentary election in 10 years. Based on exit polls and first tallies, Hamas appeared to have secured at least 70 of the 132 seats in parliament, thus giving the Islamists a clear majority over the ruling Fatah party.
According to a senior Fatah official, the party has already conceded victory to Hamas. On Thursday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie and his cabinet tendered their resignations to President Mahmoud Abbas, the official said.
Asked about Hamas's participation in the Palestinian government, the group's chief candidate Ismail Haniya remained elusive, limiting his comments to talk of "political partnership."
"In the light of these first results, we will consult president Abu Mazen (Abbas) and the Fatah brothers on the type of political partnership," he told AFP.
Palestinians faced a historic choice in Wednesday's election
The central elections commission said the announcement of the official result would be postponed until 7 p.m. (1700 GMT). Originally the outcome was expected for early Thursday morning. There was no reason given for the delay.
A victory for the militant Hamas group, which has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings against Israel, could further jeopardize future Mideast peacemaking. Already Israel's acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said his country would not accept a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
"Israel cannot allow Hamas to become part of the Palestinian Authority in its current form," he said.
The charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and the group has vowed not to disarm after entering parliament.
The European Commission said on Thursday it would work with any Palestinian government that used peaceful means.
"It is clear that Hamas has really got a very large proportion of the vote," European External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner told a European Parliament committee. "What is important is that we state we are happy to work with any government if that government is prepared to work by peaceful means."
In contrast, US President George W. Bush has cold-shouldered Hamas, which he refers to as a terrorist organization.
"A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace," Bush told the Wall Street Journal. "And so you're getting a sense of how I'm going to deal with the Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility."
Palestinian youths wear Hamas head bands
"Countries in the region and the international community must respect our people's choice, which is the result of democracy," said Hamas' chief candidate, Ismail Haniya.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas also called on his people to recognize the vote as the voice of the people. He said the Palestinians had opened a new chapter in their troubled history and called for international assistance to revive the stalled peace talks.
"We have embarked on a new era, and we need the international community's help so that we can return to the negotiations on a final peace agreement with Israel," he said.