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Munib al-Masri's new Palestinian party (AP-Haaretz)

In the para on al-Masri's business interests, read "protect" for
"protest".]

w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m
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_Last update - 08:24 16/11/2007


  Palestinian billionaire launches movement to rival Fatah, Hamas

_By The Associated Press

Hundreds of Palestinian business people and professionals, led by an
influential billionaire, launched a new political movement Thursday,
reflecting growing disillusionment with Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas' Fatah party.

Fatah dominated Palestinian politics for decades, but failed to reform
or clean up its corrupt image, even after a painful loss to Hamas in
parliament elections nearly two years ago.

Billionaire businessman Munib al-Masri, 73, inaugurated his Palestine
Forum with meetings in Ramallah and Gaza, linked by video conference.
Supporters said he would convert the new group into a political party
and field candidates in the next Palestinian election. No date for an
election has been set.

Fatah and Hamas have been locked in a bitter struggle since the 2006
election swept Fatah from power. In June, Hamas forces overran Gaza,
prompting Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-led government and appoint his own,
which, in effect, rules only the West Bank.

Recent polls have shown that about a third of the people have no faith
in either party. Al-Masri said he plans to step into that breech,
emphasizing the economy, education and welfare programs for the needy as
well as reuniting the West Bank and Gaza.

"My concern about the fate of my people has driven me to form a national
democratic body that cares about people," al-Masri told The Associated
Press. "The situation is very difficult, the national cause is
deteriorating and people are frustrated."

The U.S.-educated al-Masri runs an investment company that controls the
telecommunications sector, and has holdings in industry, agriculture,
tourism and in banks. His leadership appeals to the West Bank's elite
and middle class, trying to protest their investments and businesses in
a chaotic political situation.

Since Abbas formed his new government, the West has resumed aid to his
regime, but the situation remains critical, with overall unemployment of
about 30 percent and more than half the people under the poverty line.

At the same time, Israel sealed the borders of Hamas-ruled Gaza,
deepening poverty there. Hamas, which rejects the existence of Israel,
is listed as a terror group by Israel, Europe and the United States.
Fatah favors peace with Israel.

The 2006 election reflected frustration with Fatah for corruption,
nepotism and ineffective rule as much as support for Hamas. Members of
the Palestine Forum said if Fatah does not reform itself, the new group
is poised to replace it.

Palestinian public opinion expert Jamil Rabah said "that is a distinct
possibility. The people are closer to Fatah, supporting a peaceful
solution to the conflict with Israel, so if Fatah doesn't reform itself,
people would see the Forum as an alternative."
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