A report published this week offers a rare glance into the secret world of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which was established in 1994 in accordance with the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and the PLO.
Headed by Mahmoud Abbas, the PA has since received billions of dollars in aid from the US, EU and several other donor countries.
However, the failure of the donors to demand accountability and transparency from the Palestinian Authority has deprived Palestinians of a significant part of the funds. It has also encouraged Palestinian leaders to continue pocketing millions of dollars, enriching their private and hidden bank accounts.
One would have expected the Western donors to have woken up and noticed that Palestinian leaders are misusing the taxpayer money they send.
One would have expected the Americans and Europeans to come to Abbas and his cronies, bang on the table, and demand that they start using and investing money for the welfare of their people, and not for their friends and family members.
The report, published by the Coalition For Accountability And Integrity (AMAN), established in 2000 by a number of civil society organizations working in the field of democracy, human rights, and good governance, shows that the Western donors have learned nothing from their past mistakes.
The report also shows that the Palestinian Authority remains the same corrupt body it has been since its inception more than twenty years ago.
Under Yasser Arafat, the PA was plagued with widespread corruption and mismanagement. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, has followed in this tradition and, despite his repeated promises, the Palestinian Authority remains as corrupt as ever.
Why should Abbas and his associates work to improve the living conditions of their people if those who are pouring billions of dollars on them continue to turn a blind eye to financial and administrative corruption in the PA they are funding?
Entitled "Integrity and Combating Corruption: Palestine 2017," the AMAN report reviews the status of corruption and lack of transparency and accountability in the Palestinian Authority during 2017.
It is one of the most comprehensive reports looking into the widespread corruption and squandering of public funds by the Palestinian Authority leadership.
The report found, for example, that the Palestinian Authority had invested $17.5 million in building a "presidential palace" for Abbas. The palace is built on an area of 4,700 square meters.
After facing criticism over the project, Abbas decided to convert the palace into a huge national library.
Here is what the report had to say about the grandiose project:
"Honorable as it may sound to convert the presidential palace into a public library, it remains to be the epitome of misuse of public funds as well as a bad example of lack of prioritization. And although the idea of building a hospitality palace for official foreign delegations is not evil in itself, it is not and never was a priority for Palestinians, given the urgent need to finance vital services such as health and education. This is apart from the chronic financial crisis plaguing the Palestinian Authority. And while recognizing the importance of a national library, the idea of converting the palace to one is detrimental, since it would cost more than building a new library from the start due to the construction and re-construction details it involves."
The 83-year-old Abbas could have invested the $17.5 million in building a new hospital or creating new jobs for his people, but he chose to build a palace for his cohorts and himself on a hilltop on the outskirts of Ramallah.
Was the palace part of Abbas's plan for a quiet, comfortable and luxurious retirement? The idea of converting the palace into a national library is equally ridiculous. For the Palestinians, a new school or hospital is more urgently needed than a library. Besides, at this point, the Palestinians hardly need a library that looks like a royal palace.
Pictured: Mahmoud Abbas' $17.5 million "presidential palace" near Ramallah. After facing criticism over the project, Abbas decided to convert the palace into a huge national library. (Image source: Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction)
Here is another example provided by the report concerning the Palestinian Authority's practice of squandering public money: paying the salaries and expenses of a non-existent airline called "Palestine Airlines."
It said that "hundreds of employees of this company continue to receive salaries and allowances from the Palestinian Authority, although the company is not registered as a company in accordance with Palestinian law."
The budget for this company, the report found, is included in the budget of the Palestinian Ministry of Transportation, but with no specific details of how the money is spent.
The "Palestine Airlines" employees are not the only civil servants who are paid despite not working and their being employed by a company that does not really exist. According to the report, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), the Palestinians' parliament, have also been benefiting from monthly salaries, despite the parliament having been paralyzed for more than a decade as a result of the dispute between Abbas's ruling Fatah faction and Hamas.
"The continuation of the dysfunction of the PLC, in 2107, posed the biggest challenge to formal accountability and oversight of the government's performance in terms of management of public funds and public affairs in general," the report stated. In 2017, the report revealed, the Palestinian Authority spent more than 39 million shekels (about $11 million) on the PLC. Half of the money went to salaries for the Palestinian lawmakers even though they have not been working for more than a decade. The report continued:
"It is the right of citizens to inquire about the feasibility of these expenses without tangible results of the role of the PLC, and its failure to hold sessions that include members of Parliament in the West Bank and Gaza, in accordance with the law... Results of the government's plans did not show restraint in the continuing financial crisis of the PA, nor rationalization of public expenditures, or control over procurement and administrative and operational expenditures. In addition, talk of austerity continued without carrying out any serious implementation steps."
The report also found continued flaws in the structure of the Palestinian Authority security apparatus. The increase in the number of high-ranking officers had a negative impact on the performance of the security forces. In addition, this increase in the numbers placed an added burden on the public budget. The percentage of officers in three security apparatuses accounted for 50% of all officers in the Palestinian Authority's eight security forces.
The report found that corruption has also extended to the purchase of vehicles for Palestinian officials and their family members and friends. "Influential persons in senior positions were granted tax exemptions with legal basis for approval," the report found. "The amount of wasted funds is enormous." Here, it is worth noting that the Palestinian Authority law allows Palestinian terrorists who spent more than 20 years in Israeli prison to receive, one time only, a free car. This, of course, is in addition to the Palestinian Authority's policy of paying salaries to families of Palestinian prisoners and "martyrs."
According to the report, "political corruption has deepened in the Palestinian case due to the presence of two authorities, one in the West Bank and the other in the Gaza Strip." This division, which is the result of the Hamas-Fatah power struggle, has harmed Palestinian lives on many levels and negatively affected public funds, human rights and freedoms, and development as the two governments took decisions and measures to weaken each other.
In 2017, the Palestinian Authority's Anti-Corruption Commission received 430 complaints, but only 21 were referred to the prosecution's office, the report noted. "This indicates that the commission, its staff and follow-up mechanisms are slow," it added. "As for the nature of the cases, they ranged from embezzlement to abuse of power to fraud to breach of trust and bribery." The largest proportion of those accused of corruption crimes were employees in the governmental public sector.
The report also took to task the Palestinian Authority for the way it approved its 2017 budget. The full version of the budget was not made public; only revenues and expenditures were presented with no details as to allocations for each ministry. Nor did the budget law include a table illustrating the Palestinian Authority's debts and loans or propose a plan for the collection of payments of these debts and loans. In addition, contributions and investments of the Palestinian Authority in local and non-local companies were also not clarified.
The Western media completely ignores such reports. By doing so, Western journalists are betraying their own people by failing to inform them how their foreign-aid money is being embezzled and squandered by corrupt Palestinian leaders. The Palestinians, of course, are the primary victims in this story. They live in poverty as their leaders scrabble to misappropriate public funds. The lives of the Palestinians could have been much better had their leaders been held accountable for their actions.
For Palestinians, to confront the dictators in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip means nothing short of putting one's life on the line. Yet the same is not true for the international community, including Western mainstream media.
Why, then, do they continue to look the other way as Abbas constructs gilded mansions for himself and his buddies? Perhaps because they are too busy digging up dirt about Israel. But when journalists close their eyes and ears, enabling the theft of American and European taxpayer money by despotic Palestinian leaders who continue to injure their own people, the tinsel begins to tarnish on the golden world of the Palestinian Authority.
Bassam Tawil is a Muslim based in the Middle East.