Palestinian Affairs: Abbas's latest headaches

Fatah is beset by a new wave of corruption scandals and power struggles.

abbas 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
abbas 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Almost every morning for the past few weeks, Palestinians have been waking up to yet another scandal involving top leaders of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction. The scandals are seen by many Palestinians as further evidence that Fatah still has a long way to go before ridding itself of all the icons of corruption who continue to hold key positions in the faction. Moreover, they coincide with public opinion polls indicating a rise in Hamas's popularity among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The latest wave of scandals is one of the results of a bitter power struggle that has been raging for some time among senior Fatah leaders in Ramallah. Fatah operatives in the city said this week that the power struggle was "one of the ugliest" the faction has known in many years. "The dirty laundry is beginning to hang out," commented one of the officials. "If all the stories that are being published these days are correct, Fatah has a very serious problem." Remarked another Fatah representative: "Fatah has lost much of what's left of its credibility. If we hold a free election in the West Bank tomorrow, it's almost certain that Hamas will win." Though Fatah claims it has drawn the conclusions from its defeat in the January 2006 parliamentary election, the faction has failed to distance itself from most of the corrupt figures who were responsible for Hamas's victory at the ballot boxes. In addition, many top Fatah leaders who were responsible for Hamas's violent takeover of the entire Gaza Strip in June 2007 continue to hold senior posts and represent their faction in local and international forums. THE MOST serious scandal involves former PA Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, who currently heads the Palestinian negotiating team with Israel. According to a document released by PA ambassador to Romania, Adli Sadek, Qurei deposited $3 million of PLO funds into his private bank account. Qurei was forced to publish a strong denial in the Palestinian media. While admitting that he did take the money, Qurei said he transferred the sum to a PLO bank account. He added that the $3m. were part of a $5m. investment that had been deposited in a bank account under Yasser Arafat's name. Qurei has also been forced to deny charges that he and his sons own a cement factory that has been supplying concrete for the construction of Israel's West Bank security fence and new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Qurei is convinced that some of his rivals in Fatah are trying to discredit him so as to destroy his chances of emerging as potential successor to Abbas, whose term in office expires early next year. Sources close to Qurei have named former Fatah security commander Muhammad Dahlan and top PLO official Yasser Abed Rabbo as those behind the "smear campaign." Qurei has demanded that Fatah take disciplinary measures against the two, vowing to file libel suits against all those who try to damage his reputation. Another scandal that erupted last weekend involves Rouhi Fattouh, former speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council who currently serves as Abbas's "personal representative and adviser." Fattouh is suspected of exploiting his Israeli-issued VIP pass to smuggle thousands of cellular phones from Jordan into the West Bank. He was caught by Israeli custom officers at the Allenby Bridge. Denying any link to the phones that were found in his vehicle, Fattouh chose to blame his driver for the botched smuggling attempt. However, Fattouh's denial did not leave a positive impression on his boss, who rushed to suspend him from his job pending a criminal investigation. Sources close to the investigation claim that other top Fatah leaders were part of a network that specialized in smuggling various goods across the border. Also this week, the Fatah-dominated security forces announced that they had confiscated large shipments of expired medicine that had been illegally smuggled into the West Bank. Dozens of physicians, pharmacists and officials from the PA's Ministry of Health are currently being interrogated for their alleged role in the medicine scandal, which is believed to have resulted in the death of many patients. As if all this were not enough, Abbas's prosecutor-general, Ahmed al-Mughni, announced this week that he had ordered an investigation against Khaled Salam, who for many years served as Arafat's "financial adviser." The probe was launched following reports that the adviser was planning to invest at least $600m. in a tourist project in the resort town of Aqaba in Jordan. Although Salam does not hold any official position in the PA, he is known to have close relations with Abbas and many of his aides. Further evidence of the turmoil in Fatah was provided over the weekend when the faction's representative, Azzam Al-Ahmed, signed a "unity" agreement with Hamas in the Yemeni capital of San'a. Hours after the agreement was announced, a number of senior Fatah leaders in Abbas's office announced that Ahmed had not been authorized to sign the deal. In response, Ahmed accused his critics of lying, saying they were apparently unaware of the fact that he had received a green light from the PA leadership to strike the deal with Hamas. Other Fatah officials, however, chose to back Ahmed's claim, further exacerbating tensions in Abbas's office. Apart from Hamas, if anyone stands to gain from the internal squabbling in Fatah it's Salaam Fayad, the independent prime minister who, according to unconfirmed reports, may run in the next presidential election. But Fayad may soon learn that the path won't be as smooth as he thinks, as many Fatah operatives are already working hard to block him.