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PA corruption and score-settling mars preparation for post-Abbas era

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a press conference at the Presidency Building in Ramallah, West Bank on 3 July 2019 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds a press conference at the Presidency Building in Ramallah, West Bank on 3 July 2019 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Since late May, the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) have witnessed a sudden emergence of corruption scandals in the Palestinian Authority (PA), including the disclosure of serious issues related to waste of public funds, abuse of power, money laundering and earning profits from public services.

While international onlookers have demanded an investigation into allegations of corruption, the PA has cracked down on those probing the claims. Given that the PA has been marred by allegations of corruption since its inception, what has prompted this sudden appearance of fresh corruption scandals?

Do they form part of an attempt to settle accounts between PA officials in preparation for the eventual absence of President Mahmoud Abbas, as competitors attempt to remove one another in their bid for key ministerial positions? Will this lead to serious judicial investigations, or the overthrow of key figures?

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A number of Palestinian activists have been arrested and prosecuted by the PA security services – and their Facebook pages hacked – after they revealed a number of corruption cases involving senior PA officials close to President Abbas.

Engineer Fayez Al-Suwaiti – one of the founders of the National Movement Against Corruption – had his Facebook page taken down after he posted a document concerning one PA official’s corruption. Al-Suwaiti was subsequently arrested, with some claiming that he has disappeared, reportedly kidnapped by the PA security services in the occupied West Bank.

One of the documents disclosed by Al-Suwaiti shows that Palestinian Minister of Civil Affairs, Hussein Al-Sheikh, exploited his position to purchase a piece of land in Ramallah for $1 million.

Al-Suwaiti also disclosed the monthly salaries of senior ministers: Mohammed Mustafa, former minister of economy and chairman of the Investment Fund, $65,000; Azzam Shawwa, chairman of the Monetary Authority; $50,000; Rafiq Al-Natsheh, former chairman of the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission; $ 12,000; Rawhi Fattuh, member of Fatah Central Committee, $10,000; and Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Abu Amr, $9,000.

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Other confidential documents have also been published revealing that, in 2017, Abbas increased PA salaries by 67 per cent. The move saw the salary of the prime minister raised from $4,000 to $6,000, while the salaries of ministers rose from $3,000 to $5,000.

The revelations prompted international outcry, with UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, saying the increase “defies logic”. Meanwhile US Envoy to US President Donald Trump, Jason Greenblatt, labelled the issue “incredible”.

US special envoy to the peace process, Jason Greenblatt

US special envoy to the peace process, Jason Greenblatt at the US Embassy in Jerusalem on 27 June 2019 [U.S. Embassy Jerusalem/Flickr]

There has also been anger on the Palestinian street, given that the Palestinian economy is experiencing a suffocating financial crisis due to the government’s reduction of employee salaries, meaning Palestinian families bear the burden of high expenses.

Combined with the fact that Palestinians already believe their leadership is detached from the difficult reality in which they live, enjoying a life of opulence and luxury thanks to their rampant corruption, the incident has become widely debated. This necessitated the formation of a special committee to investigate the disclosures, but to no avail.

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Discussion of corruption in the PA is not new, yet one of the reasons for its recent re-emergence may be settling of scores among its officials, many of whom feel they are above the law even if convicted of corruption cases.

Israeli news agency TPS reported the involvement of two senior Palestinian officials in fraud and corruption; Mahmoud Al-Habash, former minister of endowments and Abbas’ adviser for religious affairs; and Palestinian Ambassador in Malaysia, Anwar Al-Agha. The pair reportedly set up fake companies for money laundering which enabled them to transfer funds from Dubai to Malaysia.

Former Minister of Social Affairs, Shawqi Al-Issa, also revealed incidents of corruption, including a file detailing ministers’ travel allowances which represent a heavy burden on the PA’s budget. One visit by a Palestinian government delegation to the besieged Gaza Strip in 2018 cost around $100,000 for just three days, including hotel fees, food expenses and fees for bodyguards, of which there were five to every minister.

Al-Issa also claimed the reason for his resignation was the refusal of former Palestinian Prime Minister, Rami Hamdallah, to appoint competent, uncorrupted employees while simultaneously promoting others embroiled in corruption.

These expenses and practices require the formation of investigation committees to stop the wastage of the PA’s budget.

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Meanwhile, Bassam Zakarneh, the former labour unionist for Palestinian employees, argues that ministers’ expenses are illegal because they are based on requests to Abbas, rather than laws. The ministers have been granted housing allowances of $10,000 per month as a result of this practice.

This shows that the PA political elite have been thriving at the expense of ordinary Palestinians through excessive income disparities. While some senior ministers and officials receive monthly salaries of more than $10,000, as well as other benefits, two thirds of public-sector employees receive $515-640 per month.

Funds are also wasted in other areas. A review of the financial statements for the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation and the PA’s official news agency, Wafa, revealed that the media outlets’ budget stands at 182 million shekels ($41 million), equal to that of the Ministry of Economy, Ministry of Media, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Tourism combined.

Confirmed by Palestinian economic experts, this review represents a new precedent in government corruption, allocating funds intended for an occupied people to failed media stations.

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News of corruption is also spreading due to vast polarisation among PA leaders. Internal strife between them has festered, resulting in their overthrow in preparation for the post-Abbas era. Each has aspirations of securing a higher position under the new, as-yet-unnamed leader, prompting some officials to expose others’ foul play.

Reports confirm doubts about the transparency of the PA’s recruitment mechanisms to senior positions. In 2018 alone, 39 high-ranking appointments were issued, including 62 employees, with no commitment to the principle of equal opportunities and fair competition.

The most prominent of these positions are ambassadors, advisers, heads of public institutions, ministry agents, general managers and governors. This reveals a serious deterioration in the integrity and transparency of the PA’s appointments, as well as the takeover of high-ranking appointments by the influential class.

Finally, these scandals reveal that the authority provides an ideal environment for the emergence of corruption and, worse than that, has no will to combat it. Rather, it maintains a policy of buying silence and loyalty using public funds, allowing corruption to become institutionalised and negatively impact the Palestinian economy.

As for donor countries which support the PA, they have remained silent about its corruption for two reasons, namely, their commitment to peace with Israel and their desire not to know that their taxpayer’s money is going to corrupt officials. The PA’s security coordination with Israel also plays a role – in return for the PA carrying out security functions, the international community overlooks the corruption of high-rank figures close to Abbas, allowing them to manipulate economic aid from donor countries.

As officials prepare for the post-Abbas era, this foul play could yet reach new heights. At a time when 87 per cent of Palestinian people believe the PA is rife with corruption and 47 per cent say the PA has become a burden on the Palestinian people, the impact on Palestinians’ reality could be profound.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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