By Khalid Amayreh in Ramallah
Sexual and financial corruption is "rampant" throughout the Palestinian Authority (PA), according to Fahmi Shabaneh. The former PA intelligence official has made these grave allegations in an interview in the Jerusalem Post, and again on Israeli TV Channel 10. The leadership, claims Shabaneh, knows about this but is doing nothing about it.
Such revelations appear to contain more than a grain of truth and must be investigated openly and thoroughly as a priority by the Palestinian justice system. That may not be as easy as it sounds, however, because the PA justice system itself is basically dysfunctional due to political manipulation and interference. Shabaneh's allegations effectively put Fatah in the dock, so the movement should for its own sake – take strenuous steps to clear its name without delay. Until recently Fahmi Shabaneh was in charge of the PA's anti-corruption unit in the General Intelligence Service; he was answerable directly to former intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi, so he is no outsider, nor is he a political or ideological foe of the PA regime. That is what makes his allegations so serious.
The Jerusalem Post interview on 9 February, included two main allegations: First, Shabaneh revealed that unnamed Fatah officials embezzled much of the $3.2 million "bribe" given by the US to Fatah ahead of the 2006-legislative elections. The money had been intended to enhance Fatah's image and boost its chances of winning. This has actually been common knowledge across the West Bank, with the names of the embezzlers known even to people in the street. However, due to the near police-state conditions in the West Bank (especially since the ousting of Fatah's militias in the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007) very few people have had the courage to challenge this issue in public, fearing retaliation by the Fatah-dominated security agencies. Moreover, the US government didn't want to pursue the matter in case a well-publicised investigation embarrassed and weakened further the Abbas regime, especially in its relations with Hamas.
Shabaneh claimed that, as head of the anti-corruption unit, he and his men succeeded in exposing dozens of cases involving "senior officials" who had stolen public funds but were never held accountable. "Some of the most senior Palestinian officials didn't have even $3,000 in their pockets when they arrived [after the signing of the Oslo Accords]," Shabaneh said, "and yet we discovered that some of them had tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in their bank accounts." Not one official has been brought to trial for stealing money from the PA, he added, although many of the cases were passed on to the Palestinian Prosecutor-General.
A number of sources confirm that Shabaneh's allegations can easily be corroborated. In the Hebron district, for example, thousands of acres of land were purchased by prominent Fatah officials for millions of dollars. The same is true of large swathes of land in the Jericho, Tulkarem, Nablus and Ramallah areas.
Some of the details of these suspicious deals have been transferred to the PA justice system. However, every time damning evidence has been presented, justice department officials fearing reprisals from the suspects and their henchmen, perhaps would ask for further information, which could only be obtained by the police.
The other corruption case mentioned in Shabaneh's interview had to do with a sex scandal involving a top aide of PA President Mahmoud Abbas in 2009. The aide is known to everyone, but for legal reasons he will not be named here. According to the Jerusalem Post article, film provided by Shabaneh showed the middle-aged aide lying naked in bed after being lured to an apartment in Ramallah by an East Jerusalem woman. Some Palestinian political observers speculate that the woman may very well have been an agent of Shin Beth (the Israeli internal intelligence agency), which is widely believed to have a large number of agents who have infiltrated the Palestinian political and security establishment. A brief investigation conducted by the Palestinian intelligence service revealed that the unidentified woman was seeking a "job" at "Diwan al Raes" or "the bureau of the President" in Ramallah. The footage showed Shabaneh and other security agents storming into the bedroom, much to the surprise of the presidential aide who is heard saying, "Thank God, it's you and not the Israelis."
In another section of the tape, the aide says clearly, "President Abbas has no charisma" and "is not in control". He also denounced the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as "the biggest dajjal [liar, conman]".
Following the scandal, Abbas abruptly deposed Tirawi and later appointed him as head of the Police Academy in Jericho. Tirawi denied Shabaneh's assertions that he was acting on his former boss's instructions but that didn't stop him from being fired from his job as well.
Shabaneh, who lives in East Jerusalem, was later arrested by the Israeli authorities on suspicion of recruiting East Jerusalem residents to work for the PA General Intelligence Service. He was also accused of spying on Israel and "chasing collaborators", especially those involved in the acquisition of Arab-owned property for Jewish settlers. Although he was released by the Israelis, Shabaneh, is now accusing the PA of putting pressure on Israel to arrest him so that he won't be able to make further allegations about corrupt PA officials.
"I am sure that someone high up in Abbas's office asked for the Israelis to arrest me as a punishment for fighting corruption and exposing sex scandals involving not only the senior aide, but many other officials as well," said Shabaneh, who is in no doubt that the PA itself is corrupt and needs a complete overhaul. He believes that the people of the West Bank "are fed up with the financial corruption" and that, but for the presence of the Israel forces in the West Bank, Hamas would have done there what it did in Gaza.
According to Shabaneh, he was only doing his job and he was authorized to fight corruption by Mahmoud Abbas himself. "In his pre-election platform, Abbas promised to end financial corruption and implement major reforms, but he hasn't done much since then." He thinks that Abbas did try in the first part of his term of office, but was prevented from doing anything substantial. "Unfortunately Abbas has surrounded himself with many of the thieves and officials who were involved in the theft of public funds and who became icons of financial corruption," he added.
Shabaneh said he had been able to track down some of the financial aid that went missing during and after the period of Arafat's death, which is believed to total hundreds of millions of dollars. By his calculations, "several senior officers" have taken "millions of dollars"; the pretext, he claims, was to buy land that would otherwise be confiscated by Israel. Many of these land deals were apparently fictitious and his unit was able to force one official to return "more than $800,000. Shabaneh claims that one "senior Fatah official and his brother" fleeced Yasser Arafat of around $2.5m for the same "buy land before it's confiscated" purpose. This is in addition to the $3.2m given to Fatah by the US to improve its image and boost its chances of winning the election; Arafat's signature was forged and the money was stolen by his officials.
When contacted, PA officials refused to comment on Shabaneh's revelations. However, one unnamed "security source", quoted by a pro-Fatah news agency, said, "The person who has made these allegations is petty and insignificant, and seeking publicity." If he is really a security official, the source added, he should not be disclosing secrets in return for payment. This whole affair, he claims, is part of a psychological war being waged against President Abbas, and the allegations in an Israeli newspaper should be viewed in that context. There was no denial by this anonymous source, merely a claim that the secrets should not have been divulged. No matter in what context allegations have been made, if there is nothing behind them the PA should do everything to defend its honour. Keeping quiet is not an option, for silence is tantamount to an admission of guilt.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.