- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — A series of corruption investigations has moved to the top of the Palestinian agenda after Hamas’ campaign for clean government produced a rout of the ruling Fatah party in parliamentary elections last month.

Attorney General Ahmed al-Moghani announced this week that he’s pursuing 50 cases that could account for $700 million in lost funds. Palestinians say it’s a significant first step, but it only scratches the surface of corruption that could implicate top security officials, private sector businessmen, nongovernmental organizations as well as Israelis.

Observers say pursuing such high-profile cases will require the joint political intervention of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the newly victorious Hamas party. With a legal system that has been understaffed and subservient to the executive branch, the cases could take years to prosecute.

“The corruption is huge. It requires political will. I believe there is an understanding between [Mr. Abbas] and Hamas on the direction,” said Samir Barghouti, an economist who has consulted for the European Union and the World Bank.

“The election indicated that the top issue that people want to deal with is corruption,” he said.

Pursuing the corruption scandals is critical if Palestinians want to restore public trust in their self-rule government. It is also considered essential to restoring confidence of the community of international donors.

The Palestinians received about $5 billion in foreign aid over the past five years, and yet the Palestinian government is on the verge of bankruptcy, Nigel Roberts, World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said in a recent interview with the Ha’aretz newspaper.

One of the cases being investigated focuses on an imaginary plan to build a pipe factory using $2 million from Italian donors and $4 million from the Palestinian Authority. The cases have pointed to workers in the Finance Ministry, and many expect them to implicate monopolies for withholding tax revenue.

“It’s an accumulation of bad governance,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian technology entrepreneur.

The announcement by the attorney general is seen as an attempt by Mr. Abbas to pre-empt a probe by Hamas, allowing him to save face of discredited Fatah.

Mr. Abbas promised to pursue corruption when he was elected a year ago, but ironically it was Hamas’ landslide that stripped his ability to resist the inquiries.

Hamas officials have said that one out of every five government jobs in the government is fictitious — a figure which would mean an annual loss of almost $200 million to the government. Observers say Hamas will need the cooperation of Mr. Abbas and other Fatah officials so the corruption inquires won’t be perceived as an all-out purge.

“It would have been better to open the files before the elections,” said Abed Fokaha, a newly elected parliament member from Hamas. “Abbas will [have to] treat this in the most serious manner possible. There is no way back.”

Palestinians say the culture of corruption was brought to the West Bank and Gaza along with Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and his contemporaries in the wake of the peace accords that established self-rule a decade ago. A comptroller’s report in 1997 suggested there was $300 million missing from Palestinian coffers, but Mr. Arafat’s regime intimidated those who warned of graft.

Since then, parliamentary committees of inquiry, public petitions, and even Mr. Abbas’ campaign platform have focused on corruption, but not one indictment has been served.

“Some people said, ‘Let’s not focus on internal issues. We need to focus on the occupation,’” said Omar Assaf, who ran for parliament with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine on an anti-corruption platform.

Mr. Assaf said he was summarily jailed in 1997 for two months because he accused Palestinian cigarette and petrol monopolies of withholding public money.

“Elsewhere in the world, if a government is labeled corrupt, they will be made accountable,” he said. “But here no one has ever been made accountable.”

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