PA officials told that the US had no right to dictate to the Palestinian people whom they should elect as their leaders.

"Hamas is a legitimate Palestinian faction and has every right to take part in the Palestinian political process," said PA Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath.

Speaking to on Wednesday, Shaath said the inclusion of Hamas into the Palestinian Authority structure had always been a desirable goal since this would enhance peace prospects.

However, Shaath pointed out that the incorporation of Hamas into the PA apparatus would be conditional upon Hamas' acceptance of the peace process.

Hamas has always rejected the Oslo process on the grounds that it consolidated rather than ended the Israeli occupation.

Internal affairs

A stronger reaction came from PA official Hassan al-Khatib.

Hamas enjoys wide support

He told that Palestinians were sensitive to foreign interference in their internal affairs.

"No Palestinian would be willing to accept external dictates in this regard. Palestinians alone have the right to decide who will be their leaders. This is nobody else's business."

Al-Khatib said he was not sure Hamas wanted to join the PLO and especially the Palestinian Authority which emanated from the Oslo Agreement.

However, he pointed out that there is a possibility for the inclusion of Hamas into the general political bodies such as the Palestine National Council (PNC).

In the end, he said, the ballot boxes would be the arbiter, irrespective of what the Americans want or wish.

US State Department

On Tuesday, a State Department spokesman voiced opposition to the prospective inclusion of Hamas into a joint national-Islamic leadership in Gaza upon the Israeli withdrawal.

Arafat has voiced support for
Hamas' inclusion in ruling body

The spokesman said Hamas, which enjoys widespread popularity in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially in Gaza, should be ostracised and stripped of any power and influence.

The spokesman's remarks were in response to earlier statements by Palestinian Authority Leader Yasir Arafat in which he voiced support for the integration of Hamas into the PA.

Hamas reacted cautiously to Arafat's statements.

'Genuine political partnership'

The movement's spokesman in Lebanon, Usama Hamdan, said during an interview with Aljazeera TV that Hamas would insist on a "genuine political partnership".

"We want genuine, not merely symbolic, partnership in nation-building and in the decision-making process"

Usama Hamdan,
Hamas spokesman in Lebanon

"We want genuine, not merely symbolic, partnership in nation-building and in the decision-making process," he said.

Said Siyam, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza reiterated the same position.

"We don’t want to become political partners by joining already-existing institutions on a quota basis but without securing any influence on the political decision-making. We want a political partnership along new guidelines which take into account the weight of the various movements."

The Palestinian Authority has not taken a final position on ongoing efforts by Palestinian factions to form an Islamist-nationalist coalition leadership that would run the Gaza Strip following the evacuation of occupation troops planned by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.