Revelations came to light this week, for the first time, of the incredible ways that Palestinian Authority money passed in only one direction — into Yasser Arafat’s private pocket.
This enabled him, for example, to buy — at a generous price — the silence of his parliament members.
In contrast to previous reports on corruption starring Arafat, which came from sources outside the Palestinian Authority, this time the source comes from home: Muawiya el-Masri, a serving member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who presented a gloomy picture, backed up by proof.
“When faced with the phenomenon of corruption and the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars, the ministers of the Palestinian cabinet stand weak and powerless,” el-Masri, a member of the PA Economic Committee, revealed in an interview to the Jordan weekly A-Sabil. “Every one of them is dependent on Arafat and is controlled by him. The budget, the sources of funding, the donations and the decision as to where to channel all the money — is all in the hands of one person: Yasser Arafat.”
El-Masri, who survived an assassination attempt two months ago, after he signed, along with 19 other Palestinian MPs, a petition protesting monetary corruption in the PA, also recounted the juggling involved in transferring revenues on sales of goods such as kerosene, cigarettes, condensed milk and cement: “The revenues, including money from EU and US donations, comes to over a billion dollars a year, but none of this money ever got to the government ministries,” he said in the interview. “The money all flowed to the office of Mohammed Rashid, Arafat’s personal financial adviser. Arafat doesn’t care what the Americans and the Europeans say. He administers the money with his own shrewd methods. Everybody knows that he controls the money.”
El-Masri revealed in the interview that some close Arafat associates, including Fuad Shubaki, in charge of military procurement, or Rashid Shabak, from the security apparatus, appealed directly to Arafat and got money “under the table,” without the sums being recorded anywhere. As an example of theft, he presented ways in which the budget for the Palestinian Health Ministry is apportioned.
“The Health Ministry was promised USD 104 million, of which 24 million were allocated as salaries, and the rest for routine expenses: building hospitals, buying medicine and medical equipment. In the end, the patients were forced to ‘lend’ money to the Health Ministry to fund operations and treatment.”
El-Masri relates a long list of stormy meetings at the PLC, during which grave charges were made over the “escape route” of hundreds of millions of dollars meant to fund daily life in the Palestinian Authority: “In one meeting we raised the matter of corruption. Suddenly, Minister Saeb Erekat started shouting and tried to come to Arafat’s defense.
“Everyone immediately started to try and silence him, and one minister commented to him ‘don’t be so naive.’ Erekat told him, ‘yes, it’s true, I know that I’m naive, I know that some of the rais’s associates get hush money. I know, for example, that Marwan Kanafani (Arafat’s PR adviser) gets USD 40,000 a month not to open his mouth in parliament meetings, and I know of others who get similar amounts, meant to ensure our parliament a calm atmosphere.”
In contrast to them, el-Masri reveals, members of the Palestinian Audit Committee, which was established a few years ago to examine complaints of a network of corruption — among other reasons in response to a European demand, after the Europeans heard of the corruption and demanded to know where their donations were going — were given a “punishment” from Arafat: after they wrote a severe report pointing at the rais’s office and his close financial adviser Mohammed Rashid, it was decided to stop paying them their salaries.
The harshest charges coming from el- Masri’s vehement remarks have to do with the close ties between Arafat and his financial adviser, Mohammed Rashid, also known as Khaled Salaam. El-Masri reveals details from one of the parliament meetings in Ramallah in which the finance minister, Nashashibi, announced “I have no money,” and told those present that he had taken a loan of USD 35 million from “Salaam” to pay the salaries of Palestinian Authority workers.
“Nobody here knows where this Rashid came from,” el-Masri complains, “nobody had any convincing explanation for how this man, who is not even a Palestinian, managed to take control of hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to the Palestinian people.”
The parliament, el-Masri reveals, decided not to let Arafat off the hook: “We insisted and asked him ‘why do you rely on someone who is not even Palestinian? How it is possible that this Rashid is the treasurer of the ‘el-Kuds committee,’ which controls hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from all over the Arab world, while we do not see even one dollar?’ In response, Arafat informed us, ‘Rashid is my financial adviser, and you must accept this. You have no choice.'”
El-Masri also tells of the “reforms” undertaken by the rais in the government ministries in the wake of American pressure: “While Arafat did indeed appoint a new finance minister and a new interior minister, the other ministers were just moved around, like in a game of musical chairs, from one ministry to another. The two new ministers have no power. The chairman forbids them from making any move without his personal signature. No signature, no money. And if he already does promise them money, it turns out that the millions have rolled into his private pockets.”
El-Masri, who describes himself as “a sworn opponent of corruption, but not an opponent of the Palestinian Authority,” reveals that the last report put on the chairman’s desk regarding money theft, bribes and corruption, was prepared five years ago, in 1997, and since then the Audit Committee has been discontinued.
“The committee chairman brought the report, which included grave findings, to Arafat and asked him ‘should we make it public?’ The chairman said ‘of course,’ and prepared to make a fervent speech against corruption and the need to battle it. We asked, in response, that he punish the errant ministers, but Arafat surprised me — instead of deposing them, he chose to appoint them to new jobs in the government ministries, and even added three new, weak, ministers, to collaborate with his monetary machinations.”
The question of funding the Palestinian terror organizations, which was revealed in the hundreds of documents that the IDF took from the mukataa in Ramallah, also came up in the interview. El-Masri, who was asked if the rumors that Arafat paid terror organizations and those who committed suicide bombings and shooting attacks against Israelis were true, replied:
“Arafat is the person who funded absolutely everything. The decision as to whom to give and how much was in his hands. By means of this funding, he was able to subject these organizations to his authority.”
This article ran in Yediot Ahronot on July 4th, 2002