Palestinian Authority security forces today arrested a prominent Palestinian-born Canadian businessman, weeks after he called for the downfall of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas.
In the above Wattan TV video of Monday morning’s incident, Muhammad Sabawi, 68, chairman and general manager of Ahlia Insurance Group, can be seen arguing with a group of PA police officers who came to his office to take him away.
The video shows a clear shot of a police summons presented to Sabawi.
Sabawi was held by police for nine hours before being released, his son Khaled Sabawi, 30, told The Electronic Intifada from Ramallah this evening.
Khaled, who was with his father throughout the ordeal, said that the family’s lawyers, while initially present, were then ordered out.
Though his father was not presented with any formal charges, Khaled said that the arrest was retaliation for an incident that occurred during the visit to Ramallah last month of French president François Hollande last month.
Khaled also said that the Palestinian Authority had begun retaliating against the family’s businesses.
Yet Khaled recognized that his father would have faced a much worse fate were he not well-established in the business community and a Canadian citizen.
“Had my father been a regular Palestinian ID holder he would have faced what many face, which is being arrested and held for no charge for expressing dissent, for an unlimited time period,” he said.
“We’ve heard many examples of Palestinians being harassed, detained and humiliated by the Palestinian Authority simply for expressing their opinions.”
The Sabawis ought to be the sort of people that the Palestinian Authority sees as the backbone of the state and economy it claims it wants to build, but today’s incident suggests that the Abbas regime will not brook dissent or defiance from any quarter.
French president’s visit
On 14 November, Khaled happened to be in Paris to receive the Takreem Young Entrepreneur Award.
While there, he received an email from a member of his staff saying that the Abbas presidential guard had called to ask to place snipers on the roof of the Ramallah office building owned by the Sabawis and which houses their companies during the upcoming visit of the French president.
The building also houses the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As landlords to a UN agency, the Sabawis must meet stringent criteria.
Khaled told his colleague to inform the presidential guard that they should send a request in writing so that the matter could be discussed and coordinated with the UN. The request never came, he said.
However on 18 November, the day of Hollande’s visit, as Khaled was returning to the occupied West Bank via Jordan, he received a phone call from his staff saying that the presidential guard had arrived at the building with a letter demanding immediate access.
Khaled said the heavily-armed force intimidated the workers in the building, informing them “there’s no one higher than the president’s office.” The Palestinian Authority snipers scaled the fire escape and occupied the roof of the building.
Video footage below also shows armed, uniformed men entering the building through its front door.
During the incident, the police also attempted to arrest Muhammad Sabawi. Khaled says that he arrived back at the building to find employees forming a cordon around his father to prevent the police from taking him away.
Clearly angry at what happened, Muhammad Sabawi can be heard in this Wattan TV video of the 18 November incident declaring “the people want the downfall of President Mahmoud Abbas!”
The following day, Muhammad Sabawi went to the PA attorney general’s office with his lawyers to give an affidavit about what had happened, particularly the invasion of the building by the security forces.
Today’s arrest was an unexpected shock, Khaled said, and even after his father was taken to the police station, he was not presented with a formal complaint.
Later, Khaled said, a complaint was made – he believed from Abbas’ office – claiming Muhammad Sabawi had insulted the president.
From refugee to businessman
Muhammad Sabawi was born in the village of Salama, near Jaffa, in 1944, and he and his family fled to Gaza during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
A student in Egypt in 1967, he was unable to return to Gaza when it was occupied by Israel in June that year. With a doctorate in risk management, Muhammad Sabawi went to Kuwait to begin his career and then emigrated to London, Ontario, Canada in 1987.
Muhammad Sabawi founded Ahlia Insurance Group in 1995, a publicly listed company with branches throughout the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. He also founded Union Construction and Investment (UCI), which is now run by Khaled.
UCI pioneered geothermal heating systems in Palestine. Khaled, an engineer who was active in Palestine solidarity activism during his studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada, also runs a project, part of UCI, called TABO, which aims to buy, register and subdivide plots of land. It then offers the plots to Palestinians with interest-free loans.
Most land traditionally owned and used by Palestinians in the West Bank is not registered, due to a 1968 Israeli military order halting land registration.
This has been used as a pretext by Israel to seize land for settlement, claiming that it is “state land.” Khaled describes TABO – which is for profit – as an effort to protect the land and place it in the hands of Palestinians who will use it.
Khaled told The Electronic Intifada that his company’s lawyer was informed by the general manager of the Palestinian Lands Authority today that all of TABO’s registration activities had been placed “under review.”
Khaled said he saw this as the first of a number of retaliatory measures that the PA would likely take.
Unbowed, he posted this status on his Facebook page this evening:
The PA leadership quivers in their collective boots every time a Tweet, Facebook [message], or article is published that uncovers more examples of their corruption, cronyism, nepotism and sheer ineptitude. This arrest was an attempt to humiliate my father – an independent investor who employs hundreds of Palestinians and has invested in renewable energy and expanding property rights for Palestinians. What the unelected, cynical, and morally bankrupt cronies in Mahmoud Abbas’s office don’t realize is that they just completely humiliated themselves and that this issue has made us stronger, more vigilant, and with your help, given us a bigger microphone.
Wattan TV reported that repeated requests for comment from the Palestinian Authority about the arrest of Sabawi went unanswered.