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One Palestinian billionaire's vision of unity

Al-Masri's new Palestine Forum reflects public desire to reconcile Hamas and Fatah.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 29, 2008

Reconciliation: Munib al-Masri stands in front of his house in Nablus. The billionaire's new political initiative grew out of disillusionment with the fractious status quo.

Heidi Levine/Sipa Press/NEWSCOM

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Ramallah, West Bank

Munib al-Masri says if he were smart, he would have retired and moved to Tuscany by now. Instead, the billionaire businessman is using his golden years to launch al-Muntada al-Filistin, the Palestine Forum, through which he hopes to bring his society's warring political faction to a point of national reconciliation.

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On Thursday, Mr. Masri's used the nascent forum to create a platform aimed at putting secular Fatah and Islamic Hamas on the same state-building team. Among the main points, the initiative calls for new elections in six months to a year – for both the Palestinian legislative council and the office of the presidency – in what could amount to a move to replace President Mahmoud Abbas. Within two months, Muntada plans to bring together Palestinians at a big reconciliation conference. The initiative also calls for a complete reform and integration of the various Palestinian security forces, which are each allied to different political groups and militias.

"We do not have a magic wand, and the situation is extremely difficult, but the forum's initiative will have to succeed," Masri, a tall, slim and blue-eyed Nablus native, told skeptical reporters yesterday. In a separate interview, he explained why he hasn't retired to Italy, or to England, where his son and wife live.

"This is what I've wanted for a long time. We want to be the conscience of the people. We want to say to the government, to both sides, you are making a mistake," he explains. "We met many people in all the districts of the West Bank, and they are all in favor of this."

The move could not come at a better moment. On Thursday, violence flared again as the Israeli air force struck targets in the Gaza Strip, killing seven Palestinians, including the son of a hard-line Hamas leader. In recent days, Hamas militants have been pounding the Israel town of Sderot with dozens of missiles and rockets, killing an Israeli on Wednesday, and on Thursday, injuring the bodyguard of an Israeli cabinet minister. In the past two days, 17 Palestinians have been killed.

At the root of the initiative is a recent poll, taken by Bir Zeit University, which shows that more than 80 percent of Palestinians want to see Hamas and Fatah reconcile and move on together. Taking this as its mandate, the forum will do what is "difficult, but doable," Masri says. Relations between Fatah and Hamas, hostile for a few years, were severed when Hamas overran the Gaza Strip last June in a violent coup. Militants connected to Hamas, which swept to power in a landslide election just over two years ago, attacked all security forces and posts in Gaza connected to Fatah.

Of course, many Palestinians say they've heard it all before. At an event to launch the initiative, members of the press wanted to know why this would be any different from the Mecca Accord, in which Saudi Arabia brought Fatah and Hamas to an agree in February 2007, only to fall apart soon afterwards.

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