On his journeys around the world, Yasser Arafat
was in the habit of taking a suitcase full of cash for "emergency" cases.
Once, the suitcase, known among his inner circle as the "black bag," used to contain $170,000 in cash. The sum, used for "miscellaneous" expenses - including gifts, bribes and tips - was later raised to $500,000.
On his last trip to Paris
in late October, the ailing Arafat did not forget to take along the suitcase, which this time contained $1.6 million. Arafat even had a special aide whose only job was to carry the "black bag" and distribute money according to his boss's instructions.
But when Arafat's coffin was returned to Ramallah
aboard an Egyptian military helicopter two weeks later, many PA officials noticed that the suitcase was missing. Some assumed that Arafat's bag-carrier had returned the suitcase with the money to the PA chairman's office. Others did not bother to ask for fear of alienating Arafat's top cronies.
Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Ramallah-based daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadeeda, revealed that the PA had launched an investigation into the circumstances of the disappearance of Arafat's cash-filled suitcase.
"Arafat's secret-keeper who carried the black bag has gone to work in the Palestinian embassy in Moscow
and no one knows what happened to the suitcase," he said.
Barghouti accused the unnamed bag-carrier of stealing the suitcase and hinted to the involvement of many of Arafat's longtime aides in the theft.
He recalled a case where a reporter once asked Arafat for financial assistance. Arafat summoned the man with the suitcase and ordered him to pay the journalist a specified sum of money.
But when the journalist counted the money, he found that it was less than the amount Arafat had promised him. He immediately complained to Arafat, who summoned the trusted aide and severely reprimanded him in the presence of all those who were in the room.
The aide apologized for the "mistake" before rushing to a nearby room and returning with an envelope that contained the missing sum.
"I wonder how many 'mistakes' this bag-holder has made over the past decades," Barghouti said. "Most of those who used to receive money from Arafat did not dare count it. They would quickly put the money in their pockets and leave, believing that Arafat, not the bag-carrier, had deducted a certain sum."
"He [Arafat] had the bag with him in the Mukata on the eve of his departure to Paris," the editor said. "But the suitcase has gone missing. The Palestinian Authority
has launched an investigation into the disappearance of the money, although it never formed a formal commission of inquiry into the circumstances of Arafat's death."
Barghouti, a distant relative of jailed Fatah
leader Marwan Barghouti
, launched a scathing attack on Arafat's top aides, accusing them of theft and abusing their powers to become wealthy. He said Arafat had, for many years, surrounded himself with a group of arrogant, pompous and boorish officials who had a tremendous impact on decision- making.
"They were practically in control of Arafat," he said. "That's why there is a need to review many of the decisions made by Arafat over the past few years. Arafat was in fact a hostage in the hands of these cronies. Some of the officials working in Arafat's office used to direct him over the past few years and no decision was taken without their approval."
According to Barghouti, one of Arafat's top aides used to serve as "ticket salesman" vis-a-vis wealthy businessmen who wanted to meet the PA chairman. "This man used to collect money from prominent businessmen for arranging meetings with Arafat," he said. "He also used to take commission from the businessmen in return for getting Arafat to approve various financial deeds."
Barghouti also disclosed that some senior officials in Ramallah used to take bribes from private medical centers for referring patients whose expenses were covered by Arafat. He said Arafat's temporary successor, Rouhi Fatouh, found at least 3,000 requests for financial assistance from Palestinian women who needed treatment for infertility.
All the women had been referred to Arafat's office by private medical centers that offered bribes to Arafat's close aides in return for each request that was approved by the PA chairman.
The editor said Arafat was aware of the contempt most Palestinians held towards his cronies. "He himself had no respect for these corrupt officials," he added. "One day I heard him shout at a senior director in his office: "You're still a donkey! How many times did I tell you to start learning how to read and write?""
Originally published March 13, 2005