- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 21, 2004

The question of Yasser Arafat’s enigmatic funds is now developing into a full-fledged storm, which could have an effect on the war on terrorism and its outcome.

Initially, the mystery surrounding Mr. Arafat’s secret bank accounts might have appeared as a squabble between the Palestinian leadership and a dejected spouse. Some observers think Suha, Mr. Arafat’s widow, was getting back at how some of the people close to her husband had treated and sidelined her soon after her marriage to the Palestinian leader.

Since Mr. Arafat was admitted into a French military hospital on Oct. 29 only to die on Nov. 11, a dispute had brewed over the whereabouts of the money. Regardless of the fact Arafat sat on a considerable fortune, there is much more at stake than first meets the eye.

“In the wrong hands, these secret funds will continue to support terrorism and will be used to undercut any effort to moderate the Palestinian position, isolate the rejectionists, or begin to restore the Palestinian economy,” wrote Edward S. Walker Jr. — president of the Middle East Institute, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt — in the Boston Globe.

Mr. Walker believes Arafat’s money allowed the intifada to sustain itself. In an article in the Globe Friday, he wrote: “According to Palestinians who sat in on decisive meetings with Arafat, it was Arafat’s design and money that triggered and sustained the intifada after the Camp David failure, not the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount.”

Indeed, Mr. Sharon’s visit to the holy site — accompanied by about 100 armed security agents — may have offered Arafat the opportunity to launch the intifada. But it was nevertheless seen as a provocation by thousands of Palestinians who took to the streets. Naturally, it helped that Arafat had secret funds to finance the popular uprising. That money, Walker believes, “is now up for grabs.”

Considering, that by FBI estimates, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon required only about between $175,000 and $250,000 to pay for the terrorists’ flight training sessions, air fares, hotels, car rentals and other associated costs, the damage that could be inflicted if the wrong people got their hands on Arafat’s millions, or even billions of dollars, is downright frightening.

Two primary questions everyone asks — including the new Palestinian leadership — is how much money is there, and where is that money now?

In answer to the first question, U.S. sources believe there could be between $2 billion and $6 billion spread about in Swiss, Israeli, Cayman, Malaysian and other banks, not to mention stocks and shares in a number of companies Arafat invested in, including an airline.

In 2003, Arafat’s fortune was estimated by Forbes magazine to be at $300 million. According to the International Monetary Fund, international aid to the Palestinian Authority from donor countries — including the United States and the European Union — hovered around $1 billion yearly since Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization relocated from Tunis to the occupied territories in 2000.

Part of the problem surrounding management of PLO funds, a number of observers say, is that Arafat bundled his personal finances with those of the organization. Also thrown into the fray were hundreds of millions of dollars Arafat managed to talk emirs of the oil-rich Gulf states into donating to Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority. There was apparently no distinction between funds meant for Fatah or the Palestinian Authority. Add to that monies from Israeli taxes in the occupied territories, which Israeli officials say were placed in Tel Aviv banks under Arafat’s name.

“While Arafat bought stability and shored up his own position of leadership, he also bought terrorism, corruption and a continuing struggle against Israel,” said Mr. Walker. As Mr. Walker notes, if Arafat’s secret money stash is discovered — and claimed — by the wrong people, it could sustain terrorism for decades.

The other great mystery surrounding Mr. Arafat’s death is what killed him. Under French medical laws, the Paris doctors who tended the Palestinian leader cannot divulge any personal information except to his family. So far, Suha has been tight-lipped, refusing to even hint what may have killed her husband.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia is dispatching a delegation to Paris hoping to shed some light on the Arafat mystery. The Palestinians will probably also want to talk to Suha about the money. She most likely was the last person to have contact with Mr. Arafat before his death and may be the only one with that information. But on both counts, it could turn out to be a wasted trip.

French authorities caught in the middle of this latest intra-Palestinian dispute may have found a diplomatic way out of the conundrum by releasing Arafat’s medical records to Nasser al-Kidwa, Arafat’s nephew and a Palestinian U.N. delegate.

While this might resolve the enigma about Arafat’s death, it will do little to clarify the whereabouts of the missing billions.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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