Western donors want to see a list of the names of Palestinians who are on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the PA is not happy about it.
What is driving this demand? Thousands of Palestinian school teachers in the West Bank are striking for better conditions. The Palestinian leadership, in response, has ordered a security crackdown on the strikers.
To justify the crackdown, PA officials have claimed that the strike was organized by Hamas as part of a conspiracy to embarrass and undermine the regime of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
What is really happening is that the teachers are blowing the whistle on PA corruption. They have accused the PA Ministry of Education of wasting donors' funds and deceiving them by inflating the number of teachers. They claim that the list of employees (about 56,000) ostensibly hired by the ministry contains many fictitious names. These include teachers and administrative workers of the ministry.
The teachers also accuse the PA of lying to the donors about their salaries. The information provided by the PA to donors claimed that the PA pays higher salaries to the teachers than the teachers actually receive.
In other words, the striking teachers are exposing the PA as playing Western donors for suckers.
The PA's Finance Ministry has yet to publish the general budget for the years 2015 and 2016. The last time the budget appeared on the ministry's official website was in 2014. The striking teachers and other Palestinians say there is something fishy about the Finance Ministry's failure to make public the annual budget for 2015 and 2016. They call this a lack of transparency.
According to various sources, the donors' request took PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah by surprise. He has referred the request to the office of Mahmoud Abbas and is now awaiting the president's personal intervention in the developing scandal.
One report revealed that the PA leadership has formed a secret legal committee, headed by Palestinian official Karim Shehadeh, to prepare a reply to the donors about the discrepancy in the salaries. The committee has been tasked to avoid scandal and ensure that donors do not get to the bottom of the case.
The donors' request explains the hysterical response of the PA leadership to the ongoing teachers' strike in the West Bank. In the past few weeks, PA security forces have rounded up dozens of striking teachers and imposed a reign of intimidation against others. When the teachers planned to hold a protest rally in Ramallah last week, the PA deployed hundreds of policemen and set up checkpoints in various parts of the West Bank in a bid to foil the protest and terrify the teachers.
In a typical game of smoke and mirrors, the Palestinian government this week denied that the donor countries demanded to inspect the payroll records. Yet Palestinian sources in Ramallah insisted that the reports were true. According to the sources, this marks a watershed in donors' demand for accountability from the PA leadership.
Striking teachers is only one of the PA headaches. The donors' demand for a full report on the names of PA public employees is bad news for Abbas. No one, in fact, knows how many Palestinians are on the PA payroll. Some figures estimate the number of employees at over 160,000, while others have put the figure at 250,000.
According to one study, the Palestinians have one policeman for every 52 people, compared to one teacher for each 72. Since its founding more than two decades ago, the PA has established ten different security services that employ more than 70,000 people.
Some Palestinians have charged that these numbers have been vastly inflated by using names of the deceased, those who live abroad and some who do not even exist. In the main, these salaries are covered by donor governments such as the US and EU, who for years have failed to check the lists of the public employees or verify the sums.
Moreover, donors might not be aware that they are paying over 50,000 employees from the Gaza Strip to not work. This has been the case since 2007, when Hamas seized control over the Gaza Strip. In response, the Palestinian Authority ordered all its employees to boycott Hamas and promised to pay them full salaries for sitting at home.
If the donors are indeed demanding the report, it could mark the dawn of a new era -- one in which the PA leadership is called on the carpet for its financial shenanigans. Of course, President Abbas and his friends might still find a way to blame Israel. This tactic has worked wonders in the past.
Thus, the jury is still out on whether the donors will show themselves to be the suckers the PA is hoping for, or if the Palestinians will finally begin to be held accountable for their behavior.
Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist, is based in Jerusalem.