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OpinionIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

The wages of PA corruption

Donor nations must insist on transparency and accountability.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at P.A. headquarters in Ramallah, May 5, 2020. Credit: Flash90.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at P.A. headquarters in Ramallah, May 5, 2020. Credit: Flash90.
(Twitter)
Khaled Abu Toameh
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award winning Arab and Palestinian Affairs journalist formerly with The Jerusalem Post. He is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Nearly three decades after its establishment, the Palestinian Authority and its institutions’ corruption and human rights violations continue. This has negatively impacted the Palestinian public’s confidence in its leadership’s policies and decisions. The ramifications have been devastating, especially on the peace process with Israel and the P.A.’s ability to lead the Palestinians towards statehood.

The Palestinian Authority has a dismal record of human rights violations, including the maltreatment of dissidents and prisoners. Nizar Banat was an outspoken critic of P.A. corruption. On June 24, 2021, P.A. security forces stormed his house, beat him with clubs and took him away. Banat was dead an hour later. The officials responsible have not been charged.

The allegations of corruption, leveled against the Palestinian Authority almost from day one, severely undermined the credibility of former PLO chief Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas in the eyes of their people.

This has made substantial concessions that would lead to a peace agreement with Israel almost impossible.

One of Arafat’s and later Abbas’s main priorities was to prove that they were not “getting into bed with the enemy” for personal profit. Countering this perception has superseded their considerations of making peace with Israel.

Many Palestinians believe that weak compliance with the rule of law, absence of parliament, failure to hold corrupt senior officials accountable and weak civil society organizations have all contributed to the spread of corruption.

From the very beginning of the “peace process” in 1993, many Palestinians saw it as a “transaction” between the Israeli government and the corrupt PLO leadership that was hungry for money after being dumped by many Arab countries in retaliation for supporting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

After the liberation of Kuwait a year later, the oil-rich emirates and other Gulf states decided to cut off funds to the PLO, causing the organization one of its most serious financial crises.

The Oslo Accords, however, saved the PLO from collapsing once the Arab financial aid was replaced with massive funds from the United States, Europe and other countries.

Many Palestinians observed that the only thing the “peace process” brought about were the enrichment of senior PLO officials and their family members and associates who greedily siphoned publicly designated funds to drive luxury cars and build extravagant mansions, particularly in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip.

Many Palestinians quickly realized that what was unfolding before their eyes was no “peace process” but a process of avaricious PLO leaders and their entourage diverting international aid and making huge profits out of the Oslo Accords.

The conspicuous wealth and consumption of Mahmoud Abbas’s sons Tarek and Yasser have been very controversial in Palestinian society since 2009, when Reuters published articles linking Tarek and Yasser to several multi-million-dollar business deals, including a few that were U.S. government contracts.

Western donors’ failure or refusal, in the first two decades after the “peace process,” to hold the P.A. accountable for its outlandish abuse of funds was one of the main reasons most Palestinians lost faith in the Oslo Accords.

Moreover, it was one of the primary reasons so many Palestinians were radicalized and ultimately voted for Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary election. When they saw no benefit from the P.A.’s “peace process” with Israel and became furious about its leaders’ corruption, they saw Hamas as their only recourse.

The bitterness and frustration on the Palestinian street were evident from the first days of the arrival of the “Tunisian Mafia” (the term some Palestinians use to describe the then Tunisia-based PLO leadership). Ordinary Palestinians felt that the Oslo Accords were not about improving their living conditions or building a stable economy but about serving the interests of Arafat and his cronies.

Scenes of senior Palestinian officials driving in motorcades escorted by bodyguards and personal assistants and reports about the lavish lifestyle of PLO leaders further exacerbated the sense of anger and marginalization among the Palestinians.

The story of the Oasis Casino in Jericho, which operated briefly before the eruption of the second intifada in 2000 was and remains—in the eyes of many Palestinians —one of the most prominent symbols of the corruption of the PLO leadership. The casino was viewed as a joint project by corrupt Palestinian and Israeli officials to enrich themselves at the expense of Palestinians and Israelis.

Gambling is banned in Islam, and Palestinian Islamists used the casino to depict the PLO leadership as infidels and traitors. These allegations further undermined the credibility of Arafat and his associates among their own people.

The security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and Israel, for example, is often cited by many Palestinians as a direct result of the corruption of senior Palestinian officials. They argue that these officials, some of whom are tainted with corruption scandals, refuse to halt the security coordination because they fear losing their Israeli-issued VIP entry cards and other privileges that they and their families enjoy due to cooperation with Israel.

The increased talk about corruption has prompted many Palestinians to regularly question the motives and reasons behind decisions made by Palestinian leaders. If, for example, the P.A. decides to build a hospital, the first question that many Palestinians would ask is who in the “President’s Office” earned a commission from the project.

The same applies to the “peace process” with Israel. Each time Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have met to discuss ways of moving forward, reports and rumors have surfaced on the Palestinian street about the privileges and rewards certain Palestinian officials have been offered (by Israel and the U.S.) in return for making far-reaching concessions to Israel. These claims and rumors have not been brushed aside. They have played a role in deterring Palestinian leaders from making meaningful concessions.

Corruption remains a significant obstacle to fulfilling the national aspirations of the Palestinians, particularly in building a democratic society, transparent institutions, and establishing a Palestinian state.

Thus, the platform of Hamas’ Change and Reform Bloc attracted many Palestinians. It included a pledge to “fight corruption in all its forms,” plainly identifying it as “a major cause of weakening the Palestinian home front and undermining the foundations of national unity.”

Hamas further promised to “combat nepotism and factionalism in appointments and promotions in all public institutions, as well as fighting ‘negligence’ in government performance and waste of public money.”

In 2010, in the face of immense pressure from the Palestinian public and some Western donors, the P.A. established the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission.

The commission was charged with receiving complaints from the public and ensuring that corruption cases were dealt with quickly and effectively. But according to Palestinian political analyst Tareq Da’na: “Although the commission is described as independent, financially and administratively, its president is appointed by presidential decree, and many members of its advisory board have previously held official positions as ministers, ambassadors and advisers to the Palestinian Authority president.”

“Although some corruption cases were referred to the judiciary, the investigations were selective, according to press reports and interviews conducted by the author,” he said. “Moreover, polls indicate that public opinion is losing confidence in the commission at an increasing pace and believes that the presidency, security services and political parties regularly interfere in its work.”

Public opinion polls show that a vast majority of Palestinians continue to believe that corruption exists in the P.A., despite the efforts of the anti-corruption commission.

According to a Dec. 2022 opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), 81% of Palestinians think there is corruption in Palestinian Authority institutions. Similar results were registered in polls held by the same organization in previous years.

Another poll conducted by the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN) in Dec. 2022 found that most Palestinians (85%) consider the efforts to combat corruption insufficient.

Palestinians believe the most important reasons for insufficient anti-corruption efforts are:

  • Lack of transparency in the administration of state institutions.
  • Lack of political will to hold the corrupt accountable.
  • The penalties against the offenders of corruption offenses are too light to deter.
  • Lack of role models among the officials who would comply with the values of integrity and preserve public resources and interests.

AMAN states, “The offenses of favoritism and nepotism, embezzlement of public funds, breach of trust, abuse of power, bribery and money laundering are the most common forms of corruption.”

In the absence of a functional parliament (which has been effectively paralyzed since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007) and in the absence of an open and free debate about sensitive issues under the P.A., it is hard to see how things can change any time soon.

The P.A. continues to engage in massive incitement against Israel in order to draw attention away from its own corruption, lack of public freedoms and democracy. The incitement ensures that criticism and grievances are directed only against Israel. The Palestinian leadership wants its people to be busy hating Israel. Otherwise, they might come to the leaders in Ramallah and demand reform.

The P.A. has lost the faith of the people they are supposed to represent. More than 70% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, according to recent polls.

This loss of faith has allowed Hamas to prey on the rightful misgivings of the Palestinian people and, consequently, to challenge P.A. leadership. This led to the schism between the P.A.-controlled West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, sundering the Palestinians’ dream of building good government and securing democratic rule while bringing anarchy and lawlessness to many Palestinian communities.

The only way to combat this corruption is for Western donors to increase pressure on the P.A. leadership by demanding transparency and accountability. Internal supervisory organizations have proven not only to be ineffective but mere extensions of the corruption they were designated to fight.

American, European and other sources of funding that allow the P.A. to continue must insist on accountability. Fiscal transparency must be inextricably interwoven into the funding process.

Only these actions can stop the spiraling abuse of funds and return international aid to those it was intended to help. Freeing those funds to build the necessary infrastructure to educate and to create jobs will change the dynamic from a hungry and angry people (easily diverted to incitement against Israel) to a satisfied and happier people.

Only full financial accountability can halt the Palestinian people’s deep mistrust of its leadership and its subsequent reticence to engage in a viable peace process.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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