The Muslim Brotherhood organ in Jordan, Al-Sabil published an interview with Mu'awiya Al-Masri, a Palestinian Legislative Council member from Nablus. In 1999, Al-Masri was one of 20 Palestinian Authority officials who signed the "Communique of 20" against corruption in the PA - an act which nearly cost him his life. In the interview, Al-Masri revealed in great detail the level of corruption in the PA. The following is a translation of the interview:
There is Only One Institution—The Presidency'
Q: "What, in your estimation, will be the outcome of the Palestinian Legislative Council's vote of confidence in the new Palestinian government?"
Al-Masri: "First of all, I want to point out that the vote [of confidence] should be for the entire government, not only the new ministers as Arafat wants. In effect, there has been no legal change [in the makeup] of the government. True, the number of the new ministers is small – five out of twenty one – but most of the previous ministers whom Arafat left in the new government have not stayed in the ministries to which they were appointed. The former labor minister was appointed agriculture minister; the transportation minister was appointed youth and sports minister; the trade and economics minister [received] also the Industry Ministry [portfolio]; the tourism minister was appointed transport minister, and so on."
"It is fitting that all the ministers should be presented to the Legislative Council to request confidence [in them]. But I think Arafat will manage to pass what he wants by presenting only the new ministers [to the council]. As far as I'm concerned, this government, like the previous government, does not have my confidence because from the outset it was my opinion that there should be institutions to manage the affairs of the Palestinian people. I have found that to date, no [such] institution has been established, and there is not a single bureau that acts like an institution."
"No minister can appoint a driver or a delivery boy in his ministry without the president's consent. Things depend solely on the president. The health minister cannot appoint a doctor unless he gets a financial guarantee signed by the president. The education minister cannot appoint a teacher unless he first obtains a financial guarantee for the appointment, signed by the president. There is no institutional process. There is only one institution, and that is the institution of the presidency, which has no law or order and is based on bribing top officials."
Q: "Why does the president want to bribe people, and how does he seek to use them?"
Al-Masri: "He wants to use them for his own personal interests, not for the good of the Palestinian people..."
'Only Arafat Knows How the Budget is Managed'
Q: "In insisting on appointing a particular treasury minister, is the U.S. seeking to limit Arafat's freedom of action with PA and to overseas aid funds? Is Washington seeking Palestinian reform, or is its aim to prevent the transfer of funds to the Palestinian resistance?"
Al-Masri: "The Americans and Europeans don't care which minister is appointed to which ministry. They are interested in there being an interior minister who will manage the entire security institution to protect the Zionist enemy's security. The Americans want the appointment of an interior minister who will carry out this mission. They aren't interested in the security of the Palestinian people. The Europeans would want to take care of the squandering of funds in the PA. No one in the PA – neither the ministers nor the Legislative Council chairman or members – knows how economic affairs are run under the PA."
Q: "Including the treasury minister?"
Al-Masri: "Including the treasury minister. I say this from my experience as a member of the Legislative Council Budget Committee. We have tried in vain to find out where the funds of the Palestinian people are."
"In the past, the Europeans made giving $80 million in aid, for a number of small projects in the Palestinian villages, contingent upon the villages themselves paying 20% of the cost of the projects – that is, $20 million. Collecting the required percentage from the village residents has been [customary] since the PA began, but [in this instance] the residents could not continue to contribute because of their economic straits. When the general budget had reserves of $20 million, the Palestinian Legislative Council decided, on the Budget Committee's recommendation, that the 20% would be paid from the general budget's reserves. To this end, the Legislative Council decided that the Budget Committee would meet with the Treasury Ministry's budget director 'Abla Muhammad Zuhdi Al-Nashashibi – that is, the daughter of the minister appointed to the treasury portfolio."
"In a meeting that lasted over four hours, we could not manage to obtain any results. We spared no efforts to obtain the necessary funds. We even [considered] the possibility of splitting it up into installments. But the answer was always that there was no money in the budget. This gives rise to questions, [such as] where are the budget reserves? Where is the money? The answer we received from the general budget director was that she didn't know where the funds are, how to withdraw them, or how to get them. The budget director doesn't know; [neither does] the treasury minister. I think Arafat is the only one who knows how the budget is managed. I would like to mention the names of several people from PA circles who can withdraw funds: Abu Osama Muhammad, Abu Osama Sa'id, Abu Hussein, Sami Al-Ramlawi, Fuad Al-Shubaki, and so on. All of them have funds, and need only Arafat's signature to withdraw them."
'Muhammad Rashid is a Catastrophe for the Palestinian People'
Al-Masri: "There is another man, who is a catastrophe for the Palestinian people: Muhammad Rashid. In one Legislative Council meeting, the treasury minister protested loudly: '[We] have no funds. We received a $25 million loan from Muhammad Rashid to pay the officials' salaries.' Allah Akbar [Allah is the greatest]! Muhammad Rashid, whose origins we do not know, and who is said to be a Kurd from Iraq – even though our Iraqi brothers who were asked about him denied any connection with him – this unknown, this ghost, controls the funds of the Palestinian people. How has someone who is not a Palestinian become responsible for the funds of the entire Palestinian people? There are stories about Muhammad Rashid's life of luxury, and about how he spends freely, in legendary amounts and at a pace unimaginable, and unverifiable though true."
"In one Legislative Council meeting, when we established a committee to receive donations from the UAE's Jerusalem Committee, President Arafat announced Nabil Sha'ath's appointment as committee head, and Muhammad Rashid's appointment as [committee] rapporteur. Dr. Hassan Khreishah, one of the Legislative Council members, requested to say something off the record, and said: 'Who is Muhammad Rashid? I have never heard of a Palestinian named Muhammad Rashid.' Arafat answered: 'Muhammad Rashid is my economic advisor.' Khreishah repeated, 'Who is he? Where is he from?' Arafat again answered: 'I tell you, he is my economic advisor.' From that moment, the council members acted to calm things down, after a fight nearly broke out."
'We Don't Notice Any Change Because No Ministry Does Anything'
Al-Masri: "In short, what I want to say is that the Europeans are interested in fighting economic corruption and the Americans want security [for Israel]. Arafat fulfilled their wishes by appointing a treasury minister and an interior minister. The Americans and Europeans are not interested in the other ministries and ministers. As for us, the Legislative Council members and the Palestinian people, we don't notice any change, because in effect, no ministry does anything. Even if a minister decides something, anyone with access to the president can extract from him a decision canceling the minister's decision – sometimes that very day. Therefore, no one cares what happens."
'There Are No Real Numbers in the Budget'
Q: "Is the appointment of a treasury minister, as a result of American and European reform efforts, expected to restrict the financial freedom of action that the president enjoyed in the past?"
Al-Masri: "I don't think so. The president rules and controls via the funds. He has no other way of doing this. In my opinion, today the president is subject to American and European pressure in this matter. Perhaps he will submit to this pressure for a time, which could continue several months, after which things will go back to how they were. In my estimation, the treasury minister cannot control all the financial resources because since the inception of the Legislative Council there are considerable revenues that are not included in the budget. For this reason, there are no real numbers in the budget."
Q: "What financial resources are not included in the budget?"
Al-Masri: "There are revenues from sales of natural gas, cigarettes, [powdered] milk, and the cement of the Al-Bahyr Company [which is] headed by Muhammad Rashid – there is a monopoly on these. The gas revenues alone come to no less than $500 million annually. The total revenues from them are no less than a billion dollars, and this does not go into the PA's general budget.
Q: "Why didn't you request that they be added to the budget?"
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Al-Masri: "We have, repeatedly. In vain."
Q: "Who refuses?"
Al-Masri: "The president refuses."
Al-Masri: "So that the people don't know what is being done. The reasons are clear. The president controls things via his control over economic matters."
"When PECDAR [Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction] was founded, the Europeans set a condition that Farouq Al-Qaddoumi, head of the PLO's politburo, would head the institution, and Muhammad Eshtayyeh would help him. The Europeans insisted that no PECDAR funds be withdrawn without the signatures of both, and Arafat agreed. But as soon as PECDAR began its activity, Arafat cancelled Al-Qaddoumi's and Eshtayyeh's signatures, and his became the authorized signature. Today, no amount, no matter how small, leaves the PECDAR funds without the president's signature."
'No One Can Know What Happens'
Q: "You accuse President Arafat of corruption and extravagance without proof. Do you have examples that will support what you say?"
Al-Masri: "No one can know what exactly happens. A fog obscures the economic activities and measures, but most of the kinds of corruption are embodied in the withdrawal of funds to bribe people."
"Once, Dr. Saeb Ereqat, the Local Government Minister, talked at one of the Legislative Council meetings. Marwan Kanafani criticized him, describing him as a fool. But the minister held his tongue. I, in turn, said aloud to Minister Ereqat: 'Kanafani says you're a fool.' Ereqat's answer was surprising: 'Of course I'm a fool, since Kanafani gets $40,000 every month.' These words are recorded in the Legislative Council records."
'Arafat Buys Loyalties'
Q: "Kanafani receives this amount in exchange for what?"
Al-Masri: "For his loyalty to the president. This is why in Legislative Council meetings Kanafani defends the president and the [Palestinian] Authority with all his might – the might of the $40,000 he receives. In exchange for such sums, Kanafani and his cronies act to thwart all talk of reform, of demands for accountability, or even of the smallest of investigations. They act to thwart demands for investigating any top PA official, and do not flinch from saying that the Legislative Council members have no right to demand accountability from the ministers or from the heads of the security apparatuses. This is against [Legislative] Council regulations."
Q: "How many council members receive regular aid from the president?"
Al-Masri: "I cannot specify numbers. [Only] a small handful of council members do not receive funds from the president."
Q: "What do you think the president's last speech to the Legislative Council, on the war against corruption, means?"
Al-Masri: "This is a speech that recurs in his words, in his expressions, and in his lack of credibility. [This speech] is a new version of his previous speeches, which changed nothing. Three years ago, at the opening of the fourth Legislative Council session, Arafat asked the council members to demand accountability, and said: 'Your responsibility is to put to trial the corruption and the corrupt.' But he continued, as always, to be an obstacle, preventing demands for accountability from any top [Palestinian] figure. He cannot consent to them trying or questioning any minister."
'The One and Only Comptroller's Report of 1997'
Al-Masri: "The Comptroller's Office [for PA funds] published its annual report for 1997, and [it has not been] published since. The report was published by mistake. The ministry chairman spoke to the president, told him that the annual report was completed, and asked him: 'Should it be published?' Without reading the report, the president answered, '[Publish,] with Allah's blessing,' and then the ministry chairman gave a copy of it to the media."
"We, the [Legislative Council] members opposed to corruption – not to the PA – asked to study the Comptroller's Office report, and to prepare a Legislative Council report on it. We demanded that some of the ministers be punished and tried, and we submitted our recommendations to the president for his approval. Surprisingly, the president's response to the report was to say he would assemble a new government. From his words, it was understood that he would dismiss ministers accused of [corruption], but actually he put together a new government that included the previous ministers, and added 11 new ministers from the Legislative Council. That is, he added new corruption to his government… Three of the new ministers were members of the Legislative Council committee established to study the Comptroller's Office report…"
'The President Has a Superb Ability to Bribe People with Money and Jobs.'
Al-Masri: "The president has a superb ability to bribe people with money and jobs. Thus we have 34 ministers [sic], while at that time the government of the Zionist enemy had 14 ministers. Sharon increased their number to 18 after being infected with Arafat's malady. Of course, the Comptroller's Office has since issued no additional report."
Q: "You say that the numbers [written] in the budget are not true. How, then, does the Legislative Council approve it?"
Al-Masri: "There are no real numbers in the PA budget. In 1997, the Health Ministry budget was $104 million. Of this, $24 million was designated for officials' salaries, and the rest was for ongoing expenses such as medicines, equipment, hospital construction, and development of medical services. Over the course of the year, we were surprised to discover that Rafidiya Hospital in Nablus, which serves the northern West Bank, had no anesthesia [medication]. The anesthesia supply costs 1,000 NIS per week. The hospital's activity was halted for an entire week until some citizens donated the amount [required to purchase] anesthesia."
'No One But God Almighty and Yasser Arafat Know Where the Rest of the Funds from the Ministry Budget Went'
Q: "Where are the ministry's budget [funds]?"
Al-Masri: "No one knows where the ministry’s budget went. In one Legislative Council meeting, we asked the health minister about this, and he was happy to tell us that he had managed to persuade the president that he [the minister] would come to him [Arafat] every Thursday to take 2 million NIS from him to purchase all the medicines and medical needs for all the hospitals in the Palestinian districts. Simple calculations show that that the president wants to spend [only] 8 million NIS a month from his budget for the Health Ministry budget – that is, $24 million annually – in addition to $24 million annually for ministry officials' salaries. No one but God Almighty and Yasser Arafat know where the rest of the funds from the ministry budget went – [a budget] which reaches $56 million."
"The other ministries are in the same situation. In principle, the ministries suffering from non-payment of their budgets are the service-providing ministries – the Health Ministry, the Education Ministry, and the Social Affairs Ministry – to the point where those supported by the Social Affairs Ministry receive their allowances after a great delay. We are now in June, and they have not yet been paid their February allowances. This is not happening only now, in the wake of the Intifada; it has existed as long as the PA has existed."
'No One But Allah Knows What Happens in the Treasury Fund'
Q: "When the PA's general budget is approved, is the money kept in the Treasury fund?"
Al-Masri: "No one but Allah knows what happens in the Treasury fund. Therefore, I say that the numbers submitted to the Legislative Council are meaningless. Once I told the council that I challenge the treasury ministry [to show that] the budget presented to the council members has real or [properly] calculated numbers. The [real] budget is not even presented to the one in charge of the Treasury Ministry."
Q: "What did the treasury minister say to this?"
Al-Masri: "He held his tongue, and even when one of the ministers asked him to answer my question he remained silent, and said that he would not answer."
Q: "Isn't it corrupt that the budget director in the Treasury Ministry is the treasury minister's daughter?"
Al-Masri: "It is the height of corruption. We have talked about this many times, but in vain. Once we sought to ask the treasury minister a number of questions, and were surprised to find that the daughter of the minister came to answer the questions of the [council] members. This made me protest; I said: 'If the minister wants to send us his daughter, then I also want to send my daughter in my stead. If things are run like this, then I will send my daughter to the next meeting instead of me.' I left the meeting in protest. My position was not well liked by one of the ministers, who said: 'We are not in a neighborhood Turkish bath,' and would have struck me had the council members not prevented it."
'There Will Not Be Elections Because Arafat Doesn't Want Them'
Q: "According to the latest public opinion poll, Arafat's popularity has dropped to 35%. 65% means an overwhelming majority does not want Arafat as president. How can these numbers be utilized for reform? Look, Dr. Abd Al-Satar Al-Qassem has announced his intention to run against Arafat in the coming elections."
Al-Masri: "The issue is not that simple. In my opinion, the elections will not be held at all."
Al-Masri: "Because Arafat doesn’t want elections. The president agreed to them because of international pressure, but he will exploit the opportunity to cancel them, even on the pretext of postponing them…"
Q: "It seems as if no one believes that Arafat will repair what he ruined. Look, a few days ago he approved the Basic Law after a delay of nearly five years – only to violate it immediately by putting together a government of 21 ministers. This is contrary to what was written in Section 65 of the law, which limits the number of ministers to 19. How can the Legislative Council agree to such a constitutional violation?"
Al-Masri: "Since the Legislative Council was put together, it has been clear that the large majority would [consist of] Fatah members – 69 out of 88 council members are Fatah men, and they are loyal to the central decision emerging from the president."
Q: "Even if it contradicts the Basic Law [that is to be part of the constitution]?"
Al-Masri: "[Yes,] even if it is against the constitution. They will find justification for every violation. When they violated the Legislative Council regulation that prohibits the number of council committees from exceeding 20, they said: 'We are the ones who make the decisions and we are the ones who will change the law.' And they really did change it."
'In Arafat's Eyes the Law is What is Written By Him and What He Wants'
Q: "What makes Arafat approve a law and then break it?"
Al-Masri: "It is Arafat’s nature, and this is how he behaves. In his eyes, the law is what is written by him and what he wants. He has become accustomed to this since he took on the leadership of the PLO in 1969. In my opinion, all the factions bear the responsibility for his actions, because they support him under any circumstances. Even the opposition factions find justification for supporting him when there are disputes."
Q: "Does he give money to [these] factions?"
Al-Masri: "I think that it is he who decides in financial matters. He gives the budgets to the factions or withholds them from them. It is he who decides on the makeup of the Palestinian National Council, the Central Committee, and the PLO Executive Committee. It is he who decides on the number of National Council members, and he who decides on the matter of funds to be paid to the factions. Thus, he [essentially] imposes his will on the other factions