From serving time to holding office

A profile of the PA's next finance minister.

prison block 88 (photo credit: )
prison block 88
(photo credit: )
Just a week ago, Omar Abdel Razek was being held in an Israeli prison on terrorism charges. Free on bail, the longtime Hamas activist is now set to become the next Palestinian finance minister. Speaking to The Associated Press, the US-educated economist said he plans an ambitious agenda: rescuing an economy ravaged by corruption and war, improving ties with the West and even reaching some sort of accommodation with Israel. "We're not here to declare a war," Razek said in a telephone interview from the West Bank, urging Israel and the international community to give Hamas a chance to prove itself. "Once they know what Hamas is doing, I think they will change their mind," he said. "We are here to help and serve our people in the best way we can." The new job caps a dramatic career for Razek, a fluent English speaker who holds a bachelor's degree from Coe College in Iowa and a doctorate in economics from Iowa State University. Although Hamas has been branded a terrorist group by Washington, Razek, 47, said he still has fond feelings of the US. A devout Muslim, he said he was always treated with respect by the people he met in the American heartland. "Accepting and dealing with people different from you is a very good asset I gained from being in the States," he said. Israel has threatened to impose tough economic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority once Hamas, which won Palestinian Legislative Council Elections in January, officially takes office. The group nominated its cabinet on Sunday and its government is expected to be sworn in within weeks. Simply joining the government is an accomplishment of sorts for Razek. Incarcerated the past three months for his Hamas membership and allegedly handling money for the group, he had no idea when he would be released. He was set free last Tuesday. "I'm happy but also worried. It's a heavy responsibility, and the situation is very difficult," he said. Israel already has frozen the monthly transfer of millions of dollars of tax revenues to the Palestinians, and Western donors are threatening to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid unless Hamas renounces violence. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction and has carried out dozens of suicide bombings, has rejected the international pressure. Razek said the Israeli government was taking a tough position ahead of its elections next week, and he expected Israel to renew the monthly tax transfers after the vote. He said the two economies were heavily intertwined, and he's confident the two sides would cooperate on vital issues. "It's in the interest of the two economies to continue their economic relationship," he said, adding that he believed the sides could eventually come to terms with one another. "Everything is possible here," he said, though he said this would depend on Israel's willingness to recognize Palestinian "rights." Israeli government spokesman Ra'anan Gissin ruled out any talks with Hamas. "If this Palestinian government is so concerned about the well-being of their people, they should take a hard look at their ideology," he said. "Free terrorism does not go with a free market economy." The World Bank warned last week that an end to the Israeli tax transfers and international aid would devastate the already tattered Palestinian economy. In the worst case, it said personal incomes would drop by 30 percent this year and three-quarters of the population could be living in poverty by 2008. It also warned that the Palestinian Authority, the biggest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, could be pushed to the brink of collapse. If Israel and Western donors follow through on these threats, Razek said, Hamas could make up the gap by seeking alternative funding from Arab and Muslim allies. "We are getting very good signs from Arab governments that they will continue supporting the Palestinians," he said, though he acknowledged that there have been no talks on actual amounts of money. The Palestinians received $1.3 billion in aid last year, mostly from Europe and the US, according to the World Bank. Hamas swept to victory over the dominant Fatah movement in the January 25 election, in large part because of public discontent with government corruption. Razek said he plans to clean up government finances, trim a bloated bureaucracy, raise spending on education and health care, and cut funding for the myriad Palestinian security services. He said taking on the powerful security forces, a Fatah stronghold, would be difficult. "They have to be targeted. Most of the corruption is within the security forces," he said. He said Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who has unsuccessfully tried to clean up the security forces, has signaled he would support the effort. Hamas's victory has raised concerns the group might try to impose Islamic mores - such as banning the payment of interest or sales of alcohol - on Palestinian society. But Razek said there were no plans to do so. "We're not interested in enforcing any religious aspects on people," he said. "Our religion allows people to choose their way of life." Razek has spent most of the past two decades working as a professor at An-Najah University in Nablus, a Hamas stronghold, but has occasionally run afoul of Israeli authorities. He was detained for three months in 1996. Last week, he was released from prison after three months in custody without charge. Razek said he was freed on approximately $4,200 bail, and is expected back in court next month. In jail, Razek said he knew he was a candidate for the new cabinet, but wasn't sure whether the Israelis would release him. He claimed his interrogator repeatedly taunted him with threats that he would not get a chance to be a minister. "I told him, 'I spent 47 years not being a minister. It's not a problem if I have to wait a little longer,'" he said. "I'm really interested in knowing how my interrogator feels now."