Palestinians' woes started with Arafat



{short description of image}In hindsight, the theme of the Palestinian parliamentary elections should have been the wise adage, "Be careful what you wish for; you might get it."

Ever since Hamas overwhelmingly defeated the Fatah Party of incumbent Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas earlier this year, the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority have been laying a guilt trip on the West and especially Israel as the sole cause for their supposed economic woes. Hamas intransigence in not recognizing the existence of the Jewish state, preferring instead that it be wiped off the map altogether, has led the United States and the European Union to cut off virtually all economic assistance to the Palestinians.

When it comes to Israel, there always seems to be a double standard. Many nations found it morally justified to boycott South Africa about 20 years ago, and businesses involved with it, to force changes in its apartheid laws. But when the United States, Israel and the European Union try to use similar economic leverage to force Hamas to change its policies about wanting to destroy Israel, Palestinians cry foul and blame Israel as the root cause of all their problems.

In Gaza and the region west of the Jordan River under control of the Palestinian Authority, the economic boycott has deteriorated all aspects of daily life. There are now shortages of all kinds: food, cooking fuel and gasoline because of unpaid bills to suppliers. Even government workers have been unpaid for months. Israel has said it would continue to offer humanitarian and medical assistance.

However, I wouldn't shed too many tears for the Palestinians just yet. They knew full well what they were getting into when they voted for Hamas — a choice between the Fatah Party of corruption and incompetence for the last 12 years and Hamas, which would alienate them from most of the civilized world.

What Hamas and especially Fatah don't want the world to remember is their economic troubles go much further back than the January elections and the economic boycott. The trouble, almost all of it self-induced, goes back to the biggest goniff of them all: Yasser Arafat. As chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, he ran the PA unchallenged from its inception in 1994.

A wise person once said, "Follow the money." A number of people did just that. For years, Arafat traveled from place to place, raising money supposedly for the PLO and later the Palestine Authority and its many factions. Very little of it, and the tax transfer payments from Israelis, actually went to the Palestinians it was supposed to help. Most of it reportedly wound up either in numerous secret bank accounts controlled by Arafat alone or by a few trusted advisers.

As to his personal wealth, there were estimates ranging from $200 million by Forbes magazine to $6 billion by U.S. and Israeli intelligence. It has been documented that Arafat opened his first secret bank account in 1965 with a $50,000 check from the emir of Kuwait.

From then on, Arafat set up accounts in well-known tax havens: Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands. In 1998, the European Union discovered that $20 million designated for low-income housing was used to build a luxury apartment complex for top PA officials and Arafat associates.

Arafat also was rumored to have owned a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Ramallah, and a number of hotels and resorts in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria. He was the main shareholder in two cellular telephone companies operating in Tunisia and Algeria before he died in November 2004. An audit by the International Monetary Fund stated that Arafat had diverted about $900 million of public PA funds into his own accounts from 1995 to 2000.

In 2000, Internet hackers reportedly broke into Arafat's computer system, finding information on more than $5 billion stashed in secret accounts in Switzerland, the United States, Asia and North Africa.

Arafat played the role of a unshaven leader with a frugal lifestyle while robbing his own people blind and letting them suffer. He purposely kept his compound in Ramallah looking like a bombed-out crater, living in only two rooms, to give the world the impression that Israel was the bad guy and to keep money flowing out of sympathy or guilt.

Arafat's widow, Suha, was not without clean hands either. The Palestinian press has a nickname for her: Miss Moneybags. Unlike her husband who was born in Cairo, Suha is a Palestinian born in Jerusalem to reasonably well-to-do Christian parents.

Mrs. Arafat has virtually nothing in common with the Palestinians who suffer because of theft of funds and fiscal mismanagement. For much of her married life she was a pampered princess, living with her mother and young daughter in Paris, away from her husband. Before purchasing an expensive villa on the Rue Fauborg St. Honore, she occupied a 19-room suite for more than a year at the five-star Bristol Hotel in Paris that goes for about $16,000 a night, paid for by the Palestinian Authority. While her husband wore his trademark army uniform and kafiyah, she shopped for French designer clothes.

The financial sources of Mrs. Arafat's lifestyle didn't escape the attention of the France either. She was questioned about the receipt of $11.4 million from Swiss accounts controlled by her between 2002 and 2003.

And there is a reported allowance of $22 million annually from the Palestinian Authority for the rest of Mrs. Arafat's life, approved by Mahmoud Abbas and then-Prime Minister Ahmed Queria in 2004.

With all this Palestinian money squandered and stolen by one of their own, Palestinian Health Minister Bassem Naim recently had the chutzpah to appeal for $4.3 million for health care in the Palestinian territories to prevent a "humanitarian and health disaster." The United States, European Union, Israel and United Nations should demand guarantees that before one dollar is handed over, Palestinians will apply the same energy and resources they have been using to manipulate world opinion to recover the money Arafat stole from them.

The West should directly provide all humanitarian aid. The PA must terminate payment for Suha Arafat's lavish lifestyle, and stop paying reparations to families of homicide bombers.

When the Palestinian Authority government has shown it can be fiscally responsible, then the world will respond in kind.

Dr. Howard M. Berlin of Wilmington, is a retired college educator and is currently in Jerusalem. E-mail at