Where is the money? This question disturbed many people last week, following the publication regarding Yasser Arafat’s secret account. “Where is the money?” asked the residents of the Palestinian Authority as they sought to clarify what exactly is being done with the taxes collected by the monopoly owners and those who control the crossings and loading zones. “Where is the money?” the Knesset Finance Committee sought to clarify, in March 1997, in a special discussion, which was convened following the findings>of the Ha’aretz “Weekend Supplement” (4.4.97), to which senior Israeli>Finance Ministry officials were summoned. “Where is the money” asks>Palestinian Legislative Council member Khosam Hadad, this time meaning the>PLO’s overseas assets.
The size and worth of these assets — which the Palestine Liberation Organization has accumulated in the 33 years of its existence — are still mystery. “Nobody knows the truth about the PLO’s assets abroad,” says former Israel Police minister Moshe Shahal. “In the peace talks, we did not dare to raise the issue.” Who controls these assets today?
The PLO remains a very powerful economic organization, having received billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states since 1967. A large part of the assets come from taxes levied by the Arab countries: approximately 5% of the salary of every Palestinian who worked in their areas was deducted at the source and transferred to the organization’s accounts in Switzerland and Spain. This collection alone brought in approximately $50 million annually.
“In total, the PLO made profits of something like $50 million a day,” said Eli Halachmi, who was head of the economic branch in the research arm of IDF Military Intelligence at the end of the 1970s. “The organization had astounding properties. They had many straw companies which aided their penetration of the European market. The Kuwaitis helped them buy shares of companies such as Mercedes. They exercised great economic influence in France, Switzerland, Italy, Holland and Scandinavia.”
In order to rule over its economic operations, in 1970 the PLO established the organization “Samed”, or by its full name “The Organization of the Sons of Palestinian Martyrs”, which has been headed since then by Ahmed Kari’a (Abu-Allah). Samed conducted many investments in the name of the PLO and its management was highly secretive and directly reported to Yasser Arafat, who also personally signed its cheques. Part of Samed’s activities the PLO was interested in revealing, from a public relations standpoint. The organization published a magazine, “Samed al-Iktzadi” (The Economic Samed), with many pictures of Palestinian women working at sewing and weaving and Palestinian men sowing fields in agricultural farms in Africa and Lebanon. According to the statistics given in Guy Bechor’s “PLO Lexicon”, Samed employed several thousand workers in Lebanon until Israel expelled them in 1982. They were considered Fatah activists in every way, including in the compensation tables, for example.
Under the umbrella of Samed a number of associations operate including the manufacturer’s Association, the Trade and Marketing Association, the Agriculture and Agricultural Produce Association, the Research and Publications Department, and the Department for Disseminating Films and Propaganda. The latter initiated and distributed a number of propaganda films and films pertaining to the Palestinian struggle. At the end of the 1980s, it initiated the production of a full length film and invested millions of dollars, including the drafting of foreign actors and cameramen. The raw material was sent for editing in a laboratory in Rome. One night in July 1989, the laboratory was broken into and not a trace of the Palestinian’s film was left.
The Samed magazine identifies its’ branches economic activities and in general, reports on the organization’s participation in a large number of economic exhibitions and its joint activities with the countries of the Eastern Bloc (until it fell apart) and with black Africa. Samed opened 20 Chambers of Commerce in various countries, such as Japan, Thailand and China in Asia, Guinea and Mali in Africa, Hungary and Poland in Eastern Europe, and France and Italy in the West. In its record years, Samed had 26 set exhibitions. The reports of Samed acknowledge its participation in weapons factories. The organization noted that it has a weapons factory in South Yemen and in Princedom of Brunei. Guy Bechor shows that at the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Arafat presented a gift of an RPG launcher manufactured by Samed to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It is a little difficult because of this to take at face value the words of Dr Maher al-Kurd, the Palestinian Authority’s Deputy Minister of Economics and Commerce. Dr al-Kurd absolutely and categorically denies everything. According to him, Samed’s assets consisted of farms, for the most part farms in Lebanon which were destroyed by the IDF invasion in 1982. “After the war”, adds al-Kurd, “they were left with a few projects in Africa, mainly in Somalia and Sudan. The civil wars and drought in those countries destroyed the farms. Samed had no property other than farms. No shares, no Swiss bank accounts. If only all the rumors were true.”
It is difficult to estimate how much the PLO’s assets are really worth. In an article published by Eric Lurun in “Le Figaro” he claims that hundreds of millions of dollars of PLO money was transferred from Lebanon to Switzerland at the beginning of the IDF siege of Beirut in 1982. Already in the 1970s, with the help of the Soviet Union, and in particular the “Moscow Narodny” Bank, Arafat and a number of his aides arranged investments on Wall Street, in the City of London, and in a number of Arab banks. The PLO also invested in large industrial concerns that were floated on the Frankfurt, Tokyo and Paris stock exchanges, as well as in real estate in the Mayfair area of London. Until the Gulf War in 1991, writes “Le Figaro”, the cash reserves of the PLO came to $7 million. Arafat divided this mighty sum between a number of accounts in Zurich and Geneva, in such banks as Union of Suisse Bank, and Chemical Bank of New York. In Israel, the figures cited in “Le Figaro” are considered exaggerated, but the assertion that the PLO was in the 1970s and 1980s a very strong economic force is accepted. Its bank accounts were spread across the globe, including in eastern Jerusalem, and were registered in the names of various private individuals, [never in the name of the PLO] including that of Ahmed Kari’a (Abu Alla). If one considers the sums received by the PLO in the form of taxes and contributions, and subtracts from this its various outlays — on strengthening its structure, on propaganda and on operations, the differential is hugely on the side of the earnings.
When Yasser Arafat ever sits down to write his economic memoirs, he will also be able to solve the question of the disappearance of Samir Najem A-Din. This mysterious man, a Palestinian resident in Saudi Arabia, is today in the seventh decade of his life, if he is still alive. A-Din has been portrayed in the Western press as one of the leading PLO money men, as the head of a secret arm concerned with the transfer of funds for confidential purposes. He led the “SAS” whose name came from the first initials of the names of its three managers: Samir Najem A-Din, Adnan Al-Kilani and Sakir Farhan. This triumvirate managed business interests straddling the world, via BCCI, the same institution at the center of scandal five years ago. It was founded by a group of Sheikhs from the United Arab Emirates, and was closed in 1992 in a joint operation of Interpol and the World Bank. The western media reported then that the bank was a giant launderer of illegal funds, including the funds of many underground and terror organizations. Its management sat in Pakistan, but the orders came out of Abu Dhabi.
Legal officers managed to confiscate 20 billion dollars, 75% of the assets of the Bank in 69 states. The closure of the bank also led to the discovery of account number 80820577, in the name of Samir Najem A-Din, from which money was taken for a variety of purposes. On 13th of March, 1984, for example, the owner of the account instructed the bank to transfer $17,000 to the Dafex arms factory in Portugal. Two weeks later he ordered the transfer of $100,000 to the account of Munzer Al-Kazar in Banco De Bilbao in Spain. Al-Kazar is a Syrian citizen close to the regime in Damascus, whose name has been linked in recent years to a number of illegal actions taken on behalf of Palestinian terror organizations, among them the bombing of the Pan-Am plane over Lockerbie.
In an interview with the BBC after the liquidation of the bank, Rasan Ahmed Kassem, manager of the branch in Sloane Street in London, related that A- Din opened the account with a deposit of $50 million, and that most of that money was used for arms purchases in Britain. The true role of Najem a-Din is made yet more elusive by the claim that he was the money man for the Abu Nidal organization, which split off from the PLO already at the beginning of the 1970s, in which case he could not be connected to the secret accounts of Arafat. A directive given by Najem A-din to the bank, in which he orders the monthly transfer of 10,000 pounds to the account of Amin al- Banna, apparently the cousin of Abu Nidal, is used as a basis for this claim. Al-Banna is suspected of involvement in the murder of Issam Sartawi, Arafat’s political adviser.
According to various sources of information, the PLO participated in the establishment of the airline of the Maldive Islands, and afterwards was one of the owners of the airline of Guinea-Bissau. An Israeli official says that Fayez Zaidan — head of the Palestinian Aviation Authority today — managed this company in the past. Samed also acquired a duty-free shop at Tanzania’s international airport in Dar e-Salaam. In 1986, the PLO representative in Zimbabwe, Ali Khalima, said that, “this is merely an investment,” and that in the same period, Samed also dealt in purchasing additional shops in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Last week, a western diplomatic official — who requested that his name not be mentioned — said that various Palestinian Authority officials have confirmed the existence of airlines and duty-free shops in Africa which belong to the PLO. Even so, the same Palestinians have claimed that many of these assets — over the years — suffered heavy losses for the PLO, with some of them in a state of bankruptcy.
The opposition to Arafat inside the PLO, and the various factions which quit the organization, such as that led by Abu Zaim (Attalah Attalah) in 1986, have uncovered a long series of financial transfers benefitting senior PLO officials and secret bank accounts under the Rais’ direct supervision. In his book, Inside the PLO, journalist David Halevy describes a complex network of such secret accounts, which were designed for financing exceptional actions and special operations. According to Halevy, the PLO treasury disburses approximately $150 million annually to the chairman’s network of private accounts. He points out that Arafat had so much money that he was able to lend money to countries such as [the former] North Yemen and Congo, [the former] Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and others.
Many Palestinians are sure that Arafat is not tainted by personal corruption, but nobody is sure that the many funds under his control are being utilized for goals known to, and accepted by, a majority of the Palestinian people. The policy of the PLO and its leader have also directly influenced both his economic and his political situation. His support for Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait brought about a cessation in the Gulf states’ support for the PLO and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian workers. The organization almost went bankrupt. It is known that part of Samed’s assets were sold during that period in order to finance the PLO’s regular activity; it is not clear what part. Approximately one year ago, the American Congress’ oversight committee held a secret investigation into the subject and even collected testimony from private and official Israeli experts. The investigation’s report was not published. Even so, it is known that the examiners did not succeed in unequivocally determining the worth of the PLO’s overseas assets.
Khosam Hadad, a Palestinian Legislative Council member from Nablus, says: “One of the greatest disasters of our economy is that Arafat and his friends are not transferring the PLO’s overseas assets to the ownership of the [Palestinian] Authority, a step which could greatly aid economic development here.” After his expulsion from the territories in 1988, for Fatah activity, Hadad filled various posts at PLO headquarters in Tunis. “The PLO still has a great many assets in various countries,” testifies Hadad. “We have companies, we have real estate, and we have investments in a range of areas. Over the years, the problem has been that the lack of a framework to supervise these assets. Private elements have exploited this for their [own] needs. The [Palestinian] Authority — instead of becoming a proper body — is continuing Arafat’s own way and lacks supervision over everything related to money.”
Abu-Allah, the head of Samed and Chairman of the Palestinian Parliament was not happy to cooperate. “I know nothing about the income of the PLO abroad,” he said.
Q: Can we talk about Samed?
A: “I know nothing about Samed.”
Q: But you are the organization’s chairman?
A: “I know nothing about Samed. If you want to talk about the peace process which is going mad right in front of your eyes, please. Do you want to talk about the Palestinian legislative branch — no problem. But about the PLO abroad or Samed, I know nothing, really nothing. Thank you and goodbye.”