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Palestinian PM and cabinet resign
The Palestinian prime minister and cabinet today resigned following what appeared to be a dramatic election win for Hamas.
Results are not due until this evening, but a senior official for Fatah - the formerly dominant force in Palestinian politics - conceded that the party had lost its majority in parliament.
Fatah later rejected participation in a coalition with Hamas - a move that will make peacemaking in the region more difficult.
"Let Hamas alone bear its responsibilities, if it can," Ziyad Abu Ein, a Fatah official, told Reuters.
Polls had predicted a Hamas-Fatah coalition as the most likely outcome of the vote, but officials from both parties give Hamas between 70 and 75 MPs in the 132-seat parliament as constituency results came in.
As he announced his resignation, the prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, said the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, would have to ask Hamas to form the next government. "This is the choice of the people. It should be respected," he said.
The exit of the Qureia cabinet will change the wider politics of the region. Fatah, the party of Yasser Arafat and Mr Abbas - supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while the founding charter of Hamas commits it to the destruction of the Jewish state.
The Islamist faction, which is designated as a terrorist group by the US and EU, has not launched a suicide attack since February last year, but has also refused to renounce violence against Israel.
Hundreds of Israeli civilians have died in nearly 60 Hamas suicide bombings.
The vote could leave the Palestinian government without international recognition, and in Israel - where a general election is due to take place in March - it will be a key influence on the reshaping of the political terrain following Ariel Sharon's stroke.
Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister, said Israel could not trust a Palestinian leadership in which Hamas had a role.
"Israel can't accept a situation in which Hamas, in its present form as a terror group calling for the destruction of Israel, will be part of the Palestinian Authority without disarming," Mr Olmert told the US senator Joseph Biden, according to his office.
"I won't hold negotiations with a government that does not stick to its most basic obligation of fighting terror."
The US president, George Bush, said Washington would not deal with Hamas until it renounced calls for the destruction of Israel.
Deep implications could be felt in the Palestinian territories themselves. As the single biggest aid donor to the Palestinian Authority, the EU's reaction to the result will determine whether the €500m from its 25 member states and common budget continue to be sent.
The Brussels-based European commission, which has a limited influence on foreign policy, said it would work with any Palestinian government that used peaceful means. The more powerful intergovernmental council has yet to comment.
Israel's ambassador to the EU this week told Reuters that the bloc should have nothing to do with Hamas, even if it joined the government.
Hamas today sent mixed signals on what it would do with its new-found political power.
Mushir al-Masri, who won a seat in the northern Gaza Strip, said it wanted "unity among Palestinians" and a partnership with Fatah, but insisted peace negotiations or recognition of Israel were not on its agenda.
Israeli security officials and the defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, were today holding talks about the Hamas victory.