LONDON — Palestinian officials who gathered around Yasser Arafat in recent weeks have been anxious to extract from their ailing leader the secret codes and locations of bank accounts they believe contain more than $1 billion diverted from official Palestinian funds.
“A huge scramble has been going on to get the codes he holds in his head for various bank accounts he holds in secret,” says a senior Palestinian banker.
“It’s an uphill struggle, and we may never get the bulk of it,” says the official, who declined to be identified out of fear for his safety.
“It’s been his key to holding on to power and influence, and some of it may go to the grave with him. If the numbers die with him, then the Swiss bankers and other bankers worldwide will be rubbing their hands in glee,” the Palestinian banker says.
Palestine Liberation Organization Secretary-General Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath were flying to Paris and hoped to see Mr. Arafat today.
Mr. Arafat’s wife lashed out at his top lieutenants, accusing them of traveling to Paris with plans to “bury” her husband “alive,” the Associated Press reported today.
In a screaming telephone call from Mr. Arafat’s hospital bedside, Suha Arafat told Al Jazeera television that his top aides were conspiring to usurp her husband’s four-decade role as Palestinian leader.
Jawad Ghussein, who was secretary-general of the Palestinian National Fund until 1996 but now lives in London, charged last week that Mr. Arafat had for years misappropriated Palestinian funds — much of it donated by oil-rich Arab governments — for personal use.
“The billions Arafat has stolen over the years from the Palestinian people facilitated the corruption of the Palestinian leadership, and is the source of his power over them,” Mr. Ghussein says.
Mr. Ghussein says that for 12 years he had deposited $7.5 million to $8 million each month into Mr. Arafat’s personal bank account.
“The money is in personal accounts under his complete control,” he was quoted as saying. “Only one person knew where [the money] went, and that was Arafat.”
Saudi contributions until 2003 amounted to $15.4 million every two months, and the United States has increased its annual contribution to the Palestinian Authority to $223 million.
An International Monetary Fund report, “Economic Performance and Reforms under Conflict Conditions,” released in September 2003, concluded that $900 million in Palestinian Authority revenues from 69 commercial enterprises had “disappeared” between 1995 and 2000.
The report also found that $34 million out of the $74 million 2003 budget for Mr. Arafat’s own office was missing after having been transferred to pay unidentified organizations and individuals.
The IMF report traced some $1.1 billion diverted by Mr. Arafat to a “special account” at Bank Leumi in Tel Aviv. It is not clear what happened to that money but, according to some Palestinian reports, during the past year Mr. Arafat and his close aides have switched banks and have diversified the portfolio.
Shortly before Mr. Arafat was flown from Ramallah for treatment in France, his wife received $60 million in her Paris bank account. According to French press reports, authorities in France are investigating the transfer.
Banking sources in Geneva say some accounts, either numbered or in the name of the Palestinian leader’s wife, have been moved from Switzerland to Caribbean financial havens. These apparently include about $300 million previously held by Mr. Arafat at the Odier Bank in Geneva.
The New York-based American Center for Democracy said in a report in July that Mr. Arafat also personally controlled 60 percent of the security-apparatus budget, which left him with an additional $360 million per year to spend as he chose.
The center said that from July 2002 to September 2003, Mr. Arafat transferred $11.4 million to bank accounts controlled by Mrs. Arafat, who is living luxuriously in Paris and is known for her extravagant shopping habits.
As of August 2002, the center reported, Mr. Arafat’s personal holdings included $500 million that rightfully belonged to the Palestine Liberation Organization. In all, his holdings were estimated to total $1.3 billion at that time.
The money “is enough to feed 3 million Palestinians for one year, and also buy 1,000 mobile intensive care units, as well as to fund 10 hospitals for a decade,” the center said. At least 60 percent of the Palestinian Authority’s budget comes from international aid contributions, of which the European Union is the largest donor.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, individual EU member states have donated at least $1.3 billion to the Palestinian Authority. Total aid from Europe — including EU donations — from 1998 to 2001 has totaled at least $4 billion.
In December the United States, Japan, the European Union and Norway, joined by the Arab League countries and the International Monetary Fund, approved another $1.2 billion to the Palestinian Authority for the 2004 budget.
Andrew Borowiec in Cyprus contributed to this report.