The Islamic group Hamas staged a stunning upset of the ruling Fatah faction in Palestinian parliamentary polls Wednesday, winning a solid outright majority of the total 132 seats and making the strongest ever showing of an Islamist movement in the Arab world.
With such a decisive win, Hamas is unlikely to need a coalition partner, sidelining the Palestine Liberation Organization's Fatah Party and promising to redefine the troubled Middle East peace process.
Hamas, which rejected the 1993 Oslo Accords that founded the Palestinian Authority (PA), was ebullient over its mandate, but said it would not change its fundamental stance: It will not disarm its military wing and will not revise its charter calling for Israel's destruction.
The surprise victory of Hamas presents a radical about-face for Palestinian relations with Israel, has reverberations for Muslim countries through the Middle East, and raises questions for the international community at large.
According to results released Thursday based on 95 percent of the vote, Hamas won 76 seats to Fatah's 43 seats. Smaller and independent parties took the remaining 13 seats.
Both the US and the European Union have stated that they would not deal with Hamas because they deem it a terrorist organization. But the PA, badly in need of financial aid and actively seeking intervention from world powers in its conflict with Israel, will now be led by an organization that came into the world's consciousness through suicide bombings in Israel.
But what Hamas has lacked in international legitimacy, it clearly has secured in domestic esteem. "Hamas's key was to position itself not in terms of ideology, but as the address of choice for those seeking to cast a protest vote," says Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group and an expert on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and a contributing editor of Middle East Report.
"Unlike Fatah, the next government will enjoy a lot of popular support and legitimacy," he says. "I don't think even Hamas was expecting anything like this result, and this means they are faced with strategic issues that they didn't mean to deal with as of yet."
Indeed, the questions that have suddenly been thrust upon Palestinians and Israelis are intricate and endless. In a Hamas-run PA, what happens to crucial cooperation that goes on with Israel? Even in the worst of times, Israeli and Palestinian officials cooperate on security issues, border crossings, information sharing, commercial relations, and basic utilities.
Shocked Israeli leaders, still struggling for stability amid the power vacuum left by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke have been reticent to react, waiting instead for more definitive results.
But Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party candidate in the Israeli elections scheduled for March, compared the Hamas win to putting the equivalent of Iran or the Taliban within 1,000 meters of the Israeli capital.
On the streets of Gaza, where the organization was founded in 1987, the mood was triumphant. At the home of Said Siam, a Hamas leader who won a seat, supporters crowded his courtyard to offer congratulations. Mr. Siam says Hamas wants to find common ground with all the Palestinian factions to form an inclusive government. He left open the possibility of negotiating with Israel and continuing violent resistance.
"When Fatah was in power, they had resistance groups and negotiations at the same time," Siam says. "As of now, it is not on Hamas's agenda to negotiate with Israel. "Israel is an occupying state. When Israel agrees to give the Palestinians full rights, after that Hamas will decide" whether to negotiate.
Whether Hamas wants to place one of its officials as prime minister, and whether its militant Qassam Brigade disarms or merges with the PA security forces, were all matters up for discussion, he says.
Meanwhile, Fatah supporters lamented their stunning defeat. "It's so sad, we don't know what the future of our country will be," says taxi driver Kamal Abu Foz. "The international community and Israel won't deal with Hamas, and Hamas can't deliver us a state."
In Jerusalem, former President Jimmy Carter, head of an multinational observer mission for the Palestinian vote, urged the US and Europe not to abandon the PA's financial needs. He said that according to the World Bank's most current figures, the Palestinian government will run out of funds by the end of February, and already faces a $900 million shortfall.
"There are some legal loopholes that can be utilized to help the Palestinians that don't have to go through the Palestinian Authority," Mr. Carter said, in response to questions over whether his call for international assistance - including from Washington - contradicts longstanding US policy about not working with any group it deems a terrorist organization.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, many expect that Islamic Hamas will soften its positions. Much of Ramallah's cosmopolitan population won't accept passage of Islamic sharia law.
At Almonds pub, one of many Ramallah restaurants that give the city its reputation as the center of Palestinian nightlife, a TV glowed with images of children wearing Hamas headbands. Owner Bishara Kaoud says he expected the bar to be especially full Thursday night with regulars anxious about the possibility of Hamas planning to impose Islamic law, which forbids consumption of alcohol. "I have a lot of people coming in tonight just in case tomorrow there won't be any booze in this place."
• Rafael D. Frankel contributed from Gaza City and Joshua Mitnick contributed from Ramallah, West Bank.