The resolution, passed on Friday by a majority vote, warned that the participation of Hamas in the Palestinian government would "potentially undermine the ability of the United States to have a constructive relationship with or provide further assistance to the Palestinian Authority".

Moreover, the resolution, supported by the pro-Israeli lobbying group AIPAC, said the participation of Hamas, a welfare and resistance movement, in the legislative polls "will inevitably raise serious questions for the United States about the commitment of the PA and its leadership to making peace with Israel".

The PA played down the resolution, saying it flies in the face of the "very essence of democracy".

Abdullah Abdulla, the director-general of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, said: "I don't understand how America calls for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere and at the same time demands we exclude people we don't agree with from the democratic process."

Clarity sought

He said the US should be honest and clear on democracy in the Middle East.

"If they are truly committed to democracy, then they would have to accept free and transparent elections, and if they insist on excluding Hamas or others from the democratic process, then they would have to admit that they are not really serious about democracy."

He said the PA wouldn't be bullied into choosing between democracy and US aid.

Interference

Hamas also condemned the resolution, calling it a "flagrant and blatant interference in our internal affairs".

Nayef Rajoub, a spokesman for Hamas's election list in the Hebron region, said: "This shows that America, which claims to stand for democracy, is essentially anti-democratic.

"This resolution is another expression of America's blind hostility to Muslims, which in turn generates a lot of hostility to and hatred of America in the Muslim world."

"Do you think the Palestinian people would sell out their freedom and conscience for a few American dollars?"

Nayef Rajoub,
Hamas spokesman

Rajoub, who is the brother of former PA strongman Jebril Rajoub, argued that "such theatrical resolutions" would only "strengthen Hamas and increase its popularity".

Asked whether the Palestinians would have to choose between Hamas and American financial assistance, Rajoub said: "Freedom is more paramount than American aid, much of which goes to the pockets of corrupted officials anyway.

"Do you think the Palestinian people would sell out their freedom and conscience for a few American dollars?"

Israeli objections

Israel has reaffirmed its objection to Hamas's participation in the elections.

Israel says it will close
checkpoints if Hamas stands

Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said the US resolution was consistent with the American policy that views Hamas as a "terrorist" group.

Regev said Israel would not interfere in the Palestinian polls but would give Hamas no immunity from arrest.

"Israel believes that, should Hamas dominate the Palestinian Authority government, the peace process would be frozen, since Hamas does not believe in the peace process," he said.

Shalom warns

On Friday, Silvan Shalom, the Israeli foreign minister, said Israel would impose a closure on the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem on the day of Palestinian elections if Hamas took part.

Hamas is expected to pose a challenge to Fatah, the PA de facto governing party on 25 January.

The movement over the weekend scored a remarkable victory when Islamist lists running on an anti-corruption ticket took control of three major Palestinian towns - Nablus, Jenin and al-Bireh - from Fatah.

Palestinian analysts and commentators contend Hamas's latest gains should be viewed as a "bad omen" for Fatah, especially if the enduring power struggle between the so-called old guard and the home-grown young Fatah leaders led by imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan al-Barghuthi persist.