(03-21) 04:00 PDT Ramallah, West Bank - A new Palestinian movement being launched today is aimed at the moderate middle of Muslim politics.
Wasatia -- Arabic for "moderation" -- is the first Islamic religious party to advocate a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a tolerant, democratic society at home.
The new party is the brainchild of political science Professor Mohammed Dajani, director of the American Studies Institute at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem.
Dajani hopes to build Wasatia into a movement with a social and political wing that will eventually compete with Hamas for the votes of what he calls the silent majority of Palestinians.
"Wasatia is a term from the Quran which means 'centrism,' 'balance' or 'moderation,' " Dajani said. "The new party will foster a culture of moderation and attract Palestinian voters who are moderate in their religious beliefs. The existing Palestinian Islamic parties breed radicalism and fundamentalism."
Dajani said most Palestinians are proud of their Muslim heritage and respect the religious identity of Islamic groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but many are uncomfortable with the fundamentalism of those groups -- and after years of disastrous armed resistance, also are tired also of their extreme militarism.
"We want to foster a culture of moderation so that our children do not grow up just with the literature of hate and violence," he said. "We want our children to grow up in a culture where people can co-exist in peace and harmony."
Palestinian politics are now dominated by Hamas -- a hard-line Islamic party that refuses to recognize Israel -- and by Fatah. The two parties have just formed a power-sharing government.
The meeting this evening brings together Islamic religious leaders from several West Bank towns, former prisoners in Israeli jails, women, intellectuals and youth. They are expected to endorse a founding platform that blends verses from the Quran, extolling the virtues of moderation and tolerance, with calls for a negotiated peace with Israel and solutions to the acute economic, social and political crises plaguing Palestinian society.
In common with the mainstream Fatah movement, the Wasatia platform calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital. But in contrast to all other major Palestinian parties, it does not endorse the return of the estimated 4 million Palestinian refugees to their homes in what is now Israel.
"I would say to the refugees: 'Move on with your life.' We cannot let the past bury the future, even though it should always be remembered," said Dajani.
Among the founders of Wasatia is Bashar Azzeh, a doctoral student in conflict system management who spent seven years studying and working in Kentucky before returning to the West Bank to work for a Palestinian development organization.
"The image of Islam in the United States is that it is extremist, but we have found that hardliners are not the majority among Palestinians," Azzeh said. "I have been to the villages and talked to people. There is a feeling that people have tried violence, they have tried everything, and this is what we need now. People want a moderate political culture and an end to violence and ignorance. They want a reflection of what we are."
Surveys suggest that many of those who swept Hamas to power in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections were casting votes against the institutional corruption of Fatah. A poll by Near East Consulting found that 54 percent of Hamas voters also supported the peace process with Israel. "A moderate, centrist Islamic party will take support from Hamas voters who will not vote for secular parties," said Hanna Siniora, a veteran Palestinian activist and publisher of the Jerusalem Times.
But Mahdi Abdel Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, said that centrist parties won only six of 132 seats in last January's election.
"Without alliances with powerful elites in society, this new initiative will be born dead," said Abdel Hadi.
Nicolas Pelham, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Jerusalem, agreed that Wasatia faces a major challenge.
"Political power relies on patronage," said Pelham. "Those factions which do maintain some form of popular allegiance are those which can offer services and jobs and some access to the remaining centers of power or salaries."
Dajani said that Wasatia will spend the next year building itself as a movement, undertaking voluntary work, creating new jobs and economic opportunities.
"Charity and voluntarism -- this is Islam," he said. "The creation of new jobs does not have to be related to arms and violence."