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Shock victory for Hamas

Gaza, Jan. 27 (Reuters): Hamas and Fatah gunmen exchanged fire today in political turmoil as the long-dominant Palestinian faction was threatened with a violent backlash to its crushing election defeat by the Islamic militant group.

Hamas, whose shock parliamentary election victory changed the face of Palestinian politics and put West Asia peacemaking deeper in limbo, said it would hold talks soon with President Mahmoud Abbas on “political partnership”.

But Fatah leaders have rejected a coalition with Hamas and thousands of Fatah supporters, including gunmen firing into the air, marched in the Gaza Strip in protest at the idea.

Thousands of Hamas backers celebrated their victory in separate rallies.

The militant al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of Fatah, issued a statement threatening to “liquidate” the faction’s leaders if they changed their minds and joined a Hamas-led administration.

Acknowledging Hamas’s new standing as a political powerhouse, Abbas said: “We are consulting and in contact with all the Palestinian groups and definitely, at the appropriate time, the biggest party will form the cabinet.”

In the first armed clash between Hamas and Fatah militants since Wednesday’s vote, three people were wounded in a gun battle near the southern city of Khan Younis, witnesses said.

The violence erupted, they said, after Hamas militants were angered by a sermon by a Fatah-appointed Muslim preacher during Friday prayers.

With West Asia peace talks frozen since 2000, Israel ruled out negotiations with any Palestinian administration involving Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Israeli interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated that message, along with a US-backed peace “road map’s” call for the disarming of Palestinian gunmen, in telephone conversations with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah, Olmert’s office said.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Israel threw into doubt its willingness to continue the transfer of customs revenue to an aid-dependent Palestinian Authority.

“We will face practical problems of how you deal with people that call for the destruction of Israel,” said Joseph Bachar, director general of the Israeli finance ministry.

Palestinian economy minister Mazen Sinokrot, sitting on the same panel as Bachar, said the Israeli transfers amounted to monthly revenues exceeding $40 million to $50 million, money needed to help pay salaries for 135,000 government employees.

An opinion poll in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper showed 48 per cent of Israelis favoured talking to a Hamas-led Palestinian government, while 43 per cent were opposed.

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