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 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 protect 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."
By MOHAMMED DARAGHMEH