The men who are selling Palestine

David Hirst, the veteran correspondent for The Guardian, reported in 1996 on fears in Yasser Arafat’s entourage that the Israelis would turn the Palestinian security forces against the Palestinian leader. According to Hirst, a Palestinian official said that the Israelis had so “penetrated” the security forces “that some of its leaders now depend on them at least as much as they do on Arafat. The time is coming when the Israelis decide that Arafat - who argues too much - has served his purpose.” The official told Hirst that, “the Israelis are grooming Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], one of the secret negotiators of the Oslo accord, to take Mr. Arafat’s place, and that they will count on Muhammad Dahlan, head of Preventative Security in Gaza, to lead the putsch.”

Seven years ago such fears and infighting could be dismissed as so much paranoia. And yet, as I write this, Arafat clings desperately to the rubble of his bombed-out headquarters, the Israelis having declared him “irrelevant,” while the US- and Israeli-chosen Palestinian ‘prime minister’ Mahmoud Abbas is locked in a dispute with Arafat over the formation of a cabinet. The key sticking point is Abbas’ insistence that Dahlan be placed in charge of security. Arafat’s paranoia appears in this case to have been justified. Even the most level-headed observer is tempted to see in this a conspiracy.

Abbas and Dahlan have been enjoying a positive press in the United States recently. The Los Angeles Times noted that Abbas’ supporters hope he “will help Arafat’s Fatah party break loose from a corruption-plagued past.” As for Dahlan, a New York Times editorial called him the “tough Gazan,” who “has pressed Mr. Arafat to crack down on Hamas and other militant groups,” and noted that “he has often dealt with Israeli and American officials, who hold him in high respect.”

This gentle treatment coincides with the fact that chief among the supporters are Tony Blair, and George W. Bush, who declared himself “pleased” at Abbas’ appointment. It is impossible to find any mention of the fact that Abbas and Dahlan are steeped in the corruption that plagued the Palestinian Authority from its inception. In an earlier column, I recalled Abbas’ $1.5 million villa built amidst the squalor of Gaza. Dahlan too, built himself a villa, one so lavish that it began to sink into Gaza’s sandy soil, and had to be propped up with special supports.

A 1997 investigative report by Ha’aretz journalists Ronen Bergman and David Ratner (“The Man who swallowed Gaza,” April 4, 1997), detailed the sources of some this wealth. Dahlan, according to this report and numerous others, profited from a monopoly on the import of gasoline into Gaza. Palestinian gas station owners were forced to buy product at inflated prices and Dahlan’s Preventive Security Service spent much of its time protecting Israeli tankers.

More serious perhaps — and equally forgotten — is that Dahlan’s security services were the target of numerous allegations from Palestinian and international human rights organizations of serious abuses including torture.

The extent of Palestinian Authority corruption, in which Abbas and Dahlan are marinated, was known from the first days. However, in the ‘good old days’ of Rabin, Peres, Clinton and ‘Special Middle East Coordinator’ Dennis Ross, the only people who spoke about it vociferously and consistently were Palestinians themselves, and, ironically right-wing Israeli opponents of the Oslo accords who seized on any information to discredit their enemies. Ross, when asked last year by the Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick why the Clinton administration never showed much concern about this corruption, responded, “Well, it wasn’t as if the Israelis were particularly concerned about the problem.” Ross was of course concerned only with Israel’s priorities, and those were summed up by Rabin’s hope that Arafat would fight “terrorism” without interference from Israel’s “Supreme Court and the human rights group B’Tselem.” The fact that Palestinian legislators and activists were going to jail or worse merely for speaking of the corruption never spurred the United States to act.

The tolerance of corruption extended also to the role of Israelis. Last year, Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper sparked a furor when it revealed the extent of the business and financial relationship between Arafat and his cronies, and Yossi Ginossar, the former head of interrogations for Israel’s Shin Bet. Ginossar is accused among other things, of managing secret Swiss bank accounts for Arafat. Israel’s attorney general has launched a full-scale criminal investigation into what many Israelis view as treason. Yet the 1997 Ha’aretz report alleged that Ginossar was already acting as a personal go-between for Arafat’s closest associates in corrupt deals, and taking five percent from each side. What took the Israelis so long to find their outrage?

Under the guise of “reforming” the Palestinian Authority for the sake of “peace,” we are witnessing Rabin’s formula being resurrected with only the names changed. The vague promises of the Oslo accords have been replaced with the vague promises of the “Road Map.” Abbas is being promoted not because he represents the future for the Palestinians, but precisely because he represents a past in which private profit and privilege were secretly traded for fundamental rights and interests of the Palestinian people.

This article first appeared in The Daily Star on 23 April 2003.