Many Palestinians here on Thursday responded with ill-disguised glee to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke, while senior Palestinian officials expressed fear that his illness might set back the peace process and that his replacement might be even "worse." Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who returned to Ramallah after a week-long tour of the Gulf, was said to be following news of Sharon's condition with "great worry." His spokesman said Abbas had phoned Israeli officials for updates. Abbas expressed fear that Sharon's absence from the scene would have a negative impact on the peace process. He also expressed hope that the latest developments in Israel wouldn't affect the Palestinians' plan to hold parliamentary elections later this month. "On a purely humanitarian level we feel sorry for Mr. Sharon," said Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister Nabil Shaath. "Politically it will increase the uncertainty we are facing to get back to the peace process," he said. "It is highly unpredictable to tell what will happen." But prominent Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi denounced Sharon as "a strong and charismatic leader who steered politics toward the Right and extremism." PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who met Sharon several times over the past few years, expressed hope that Sharon's departure would not leave a political vacuum in Israel. "What we care about is a serious peace process," he said. "We are looking forward to dealing with a new Israeli leadership that believes in peace with the Palestinians." "His death will cause a political upheaval in both Israeli and Palestinian societies," former PA minister Muhammad Dahlan said. He hailed Sharon as a leader who was loyal to his people, saying: "We wish him what the Israeli people wish him." "Sharon's absence removes from the political scene a professional killer who mastered the murder of Palestinians and addressed the most violent, brutal and bloody strikes [against Arabs] in the history of the Arab-Israeli struggle," said Muhammad Nazzal, a Hamas leader in Beirut. "The Palestinian people can only hope that what is coming is better, not worse." In Gaza City, Hamas spokesman Mushi al-Masri said his movement believed the region would be better off without Sharon. "This man has a black history," he said. "He has committed many massacres against our people and was responsible for the death of [Hamas leader] Ahmed Yassin and Yasser Arafat." Ahmed Jibril, leader of the Syrian-backed faction Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, called Sharon's stroke a gift from God: "We say it frankly that God is great and is able to exact revenge on this butcher. We thank God for this gift he presented to us on this new year," said Jibril. Many Palestinians here said they were happy to see the back of Sharon. "I hate the man. I hope he dies - slowly," said one young man helping the Fatah campaign for the parliamentary election. "This is a great day for the Palestinians," said university student Sawsan Hamoudeh. "We hope the Israeli people will now elect better leaders." In other areas, Palestinians handed out sweets in celebration, while gunmen in Balata refugee camp in Nablus took to the streets, firing their weapons in joy. Palestinian commentator Ghazi al-Saadi struck a more pragmatic tone, noting that Sharon was "the first Israeli leader who stopped claiming Israel had a right to all of the Palestinians' land," a reference to Israeli's recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and his clear description of Israel's hold on the West Bank as "occupation." "A live Sharon is better for the Palestinians now, despite all the crimes he has committed against us," he said.