In February, press reports that cement imported from Egypt through Palestinian companies and ready-made concrete manufactured in the Palestinian village of Abu Dis were being used to build Israeli settlements and the apartheid wall provoked outrage among Palestinians. Israeli television showed trucks transporting cement from a factory originally owned by Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia to the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, east of occupied Jerusalem. Qureia reportedly had transferred ownership of the plant to other members of his family.
In an attempt to mollify public disgust, the Palestinian Authority (PA) ordered an investigation, even as the accusations were vigorously denied. The committee charged with the job, headed by Palestinian legislator Hasan Khreisheh, has now completed its work, according to a June 14 report in the Jordanian daily Ad Dustour.
The investigation was focused on three Palestinian companies owned directly by influential Palestinians or their family members. Two were operating in the West Bank and one in Gaza. Khreisheh said that his committee spent seven months collecting facts and that “compelling evidence and documents adequate for indicting those involved were referred to the public prosecutor”. He also said that “major responsibility in this misconduct lies mainly on the Ministry of National Economy which issued the necessary importation licences without conducting any follow up on where the cement was destined”.
Khreisheh blamed the whole Palestinian Cabinet, on the grounds that it is collectively responsible to monitor the imported cement and its use, and prevent the import of quantities exceeding agreed-upon quotas.
Judging from previous cases, however, there is little hope that this latest investigation will lead to any real accountability. Six years ago, a Palestinian parliamentary panel conducted an investigation into the shocking fact that almost half of the PA’s budget — $300 million — was unaccounted for, but no action was taken as a result of the panel’s recommendations.Again, the tendency to cover up wrongdoing continues. Khreisheh was quoted by Ad Dustour as saying that his committee was subjected to intense pressure to close the case. Khreisheh said that “threats were present all along while investigations were under way during a period of seven months”. He did not reveal the sources of the threats, saying: “Any price we pay for ending corruption, and specifically in this case, will be a price worth paying.” Khreisheh also revealed that Israel applied pressure on some members of the committee to keep a shroud over the affair.
From its inception, the PA has been marked by corruption, incompetence and mismanagement. For years, top officials enriched themselves through deals and monopolies negotiated with Israeli companies on such essentials as gasoline and other consumer goods. Some of the dozen or so Palestinian “security forces” that sprouted in the heyday of Oslo, existed primarily to protect and enforce these corrupt monopolies.
While Palestinians at the grassroots always protested this phenomenon, much of the world community, including the United States and the European Union (the PA’s main financial sponsor) were willing to turn a blind eye to it as long as they thought that the PA was willing to play along with a “peace process” that literally cemented the status quo and provided a cosmetic solution to the deep problems and conflicts that Israel’s establishment had created. In fact, for the principals in the Oslo adventure, corruption was the main reward for going along with a plan that has impoverished the Palestinians’ society, doubled the number of Jewish settlements on their land and pushed them further from freedom than ever before.
The main victims of this collusion between certain Palestinian officials and a silent world were ordinary Palestinians, who saw their hopes and dreams dashed as their ostensible rulers’ luxury villas sprouted across the landscape. Corruption and “reform” only become an international cause celebre once the PA had outlived its usefulness and revealed itself to be incapable of making the Palestinian people swallow unjust and unworkable Israeli-American diktats — specifically giving up the right of return and accepting a “state” on a fraction of the West Bank, with virtually all the Jewish colonies remaining in place.
Perhaps the one positive element of the repeated investigations is that they demonstrate that Palestinians, like any other people, are capable of harsh self-examination and criticism. But in their current situation, where they live under Israeli military dictatorship, on the one-hand, and a moribund regime whose only goal is its own self-preservation, on the other, this self-criticism can hardly be translated into effective action.
Corruption and war-profiteering are the hand-maidens of military occupation. It is clear that ending Israeli military rule also means pulling out from the roots the Palestinian structures and attitudes that have made the grim suffering of the vast majority a chance to get rich quick for a shameless and unprincipled few.
Ambassador Hasan Abu Nimah is director of the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies in Amman. Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times on 23 June 2004.