Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 July - 4 August 2004
Issue No. 701
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

All for reform

The call for Palestinian reform is all well and good, but how deep run the roots of corruption, asks Lamis Andoni

These days you can barely watch a satellite station without finding a Palestinian official, activist or pundit condemning corruption, the state of chaos, and calling for reforms. The advocates for reform are so great in number that viewers may wonder if so many voices within the Palestinian establishment are championing reform, then who are the corrupt officials everyone is talking about?

A cynical answer would be that the slogan of Palestinian reform has become an act of political expediency to appease both external pressures and increasing Palestinian discontent with corruption. This is only a part of the story which has been surfacing in the form of a power struggle over the leadership the multi- headed security apparatus, control of Gaza, and a governmental crisis that was defused -- but not solved -- by the public reconciliation between President Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.

Yet the current crisis is mostly a manifestation of the loss of hope for reaching a just solution to end Palestinian suffering, as well as an indication of the deeper moral and political corruption and impotence of the Palestinian system which is already squandering the unprecedented triumph presented by the International Court of Justice which rendered the Israeli "security wall" illegal.

Thus, instead of formulating a strategy, the Palestinian establishment has become embroiled in a fruitless struggle which underscores its inability to take any initiative, thereby rendering it vulnerable to Israeli and American overtures.

The fact remains that the call for reform, as well as accusations and exposure of corruption, should not be simply dismissed as a struggle for power among the elite. Rampant corruption, without doubt, is hampering the Palestinian ability to respond collectively to the continued and systemic Israeli de facto annexation of Palestinian lands -- not to mention its ability to initiate a strategy for action. The danger here is that a potential movement for reform may yet be reduced to bickering and jockeying for positions among the elite. Because at the end of the day this is not simply a story of financial corruption -- characterised by officially sanctioned commissions, misuse of public funds or other financial scandals -- but one of a severe political crisis within a deformed system.

For if we examine the voices seeking to expose corruption we detect the following trends: firstly, genuine frustration experienced by the majority of Palestinians at being oppressed by the ruthless Israeli occupation and corrupt officials -- a lethal combination which eats away at peoples' hopes and morale, at times even destroying their will to survive. Secondly, an increasing number of former PLO officials, as well as local West Bank and Gaza personalities who feel that Arafat's era is over are unashamedly marketing themselves to accommodate the requirements of an American era.

This group, which is becoming ever more vocal, blames Arafat for rejecting the Ehud Barak peace proposal in 2000 for a fragmented Israeli controlled "mini- state", and for not crushing the Intifada. Some of these officials have overnight turned into reform advocates and critics of Arafat after years, if not decades, of being on the receiving end of generous financial and political endowments, discernible in their villas, cars and high-rolling life styles.

The third trend, which has proved to be a leading force over the last three weeks, emanates from the disgruntled leaders of the first 1987 Intifada, who have significant influence within the security apparatus and with their former street fighter compatriots.

The strength and weakness of this third group stems from the leadership of Mohamed Dahlan, the former powerful head of the Preventive Security in Gaza, who was the moving force behind first attempt to challenge and botch Arafat's security appointments and mobilise the huge "pro-reform" and mostly armed protest that swept the streets of the Gaza Strip last week.

This Dahlan, who does not hide his drive for power, has called on Arafat "to sack all corrupt officials around him". The problem is that Dahlan himself is part of the system and has yet to acknowledge that he has succumbed to the same temptation of questionable financial gain.

Israeli and American praise -- whether genuine or not -- for Dahlan "as a future leader we can deal with" is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it secures the support of many opportunists who have an eye on influential positions in a post-Arafat era; on the other hand it results in genuine suspicion and serious lack of credibility among Palestinians.

This writer has confronted Dahlan with these issues on several occasions over the past few years, only to be faced with an assured smile of a practised politician saying he "was no pawn".

But Dahlan cannot be dismissed. For while initially it seemed that some influential people in Fatah in the Gaza Strip appeared to be distancing themselves from the ambitious leader, it turns out he has broader support than publicly professed by these officials.

While not denying Dahlan's embroilment in corruption, they believe that his championing of the anti- corruption campaign has many consequences. "If Dahlan is corrupt, it is because of the system, which is encouraged and nurtured by Arafat," said one former senior PLO official.

Extensive interviews and conversations with Fatah activists and officials in Gaza suggest that his support stems in part from the bitterness and anger of many generations of Fatah activists who feel themselves used and marginalised by the PLO and PA leadership.

Samir Masharawi is an eloquent Fatah leader who dominated TV satellite channels last week with his demands for reform and the uprooting of corruption. But for less-than-obvious reasons interviewers failed to question him about his association with Dahlan, and failed also to take him to task for Dahlan's well-known -- in Gaza at least -- business ventures and associations with the last decade's most infamous symbol of corruption, Khaled Salam.

Yet support for Dahlan also suggests that many of his generation identify with his history of struggle, poverty and disillusionment with the PLO leadership, and also share his ambition for a greater role in the political system.

Dahlan's story is actually an example of a system which succeeded in corrupting hundreds, if not thousands, of some of the bravest champions, and at one time models, of the Palestinian struggle.

I first met Dahlan, back then a thin and very composed young man, in Tunis. We were introduced by the late leader Khalil Al-Wazir Abu Jihad, who had great hopes in, and for, Dahlan. He was close to Abdul-Aziz Shahin, known as Abu Ali Shahin, the once-legendary Fatah leader who was said to have led the organisation from inside Israeli jails. Born in 1961 in the Khan Yunis Refugee Camp, he founded the Fatah Youth organisation 1981 and emerged as a popular and daring street fighter before the second Intifada.

Israel captured Dahlan, who was in jail at least 11 times, and deported him to Amman. Based on our conversations in Tunis, I never expected Dahlan to become a security chief -- essentially beholden to Israel's demands to crush the Palestinian resistance. But I saw in him a young man, like so many other young deportees, deeply disillusioned with the stagnation and corruption of the PLO political leadership idolised back in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Many of the deportees openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the system and bitterness at the sacrifices they had made for what they perceived as a bankrupt leadership.

Yet with the 1993 Oslo accords, the corruption which dogged the PLO institutions -- even at their political peak in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s -- gave way to a new form of more dangerous political, institutional and financial corruption.

Unlike the corruption of the pre-Oslo PLO days -- which also spilled over into Palestine -- a new form of political, moral and financial corruption emanated from the very nature of the system that was created by the agreements: a system which reduced the PLO to an authority limited in its ability to protect its people, and one dependent -- both financially and politically -- on fulfilling certain terms, which were often at odd with the aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Power, once obtained through popular support and status within the PLO, was now obtained through ties with Israel or Israeli officials; former fighters -- either those who braved Israeli invasions in Lebanon, or led the first Intifada -- became members of a security force, whose main function was to protect Israel and police the Palestinian people.

Indeed a good chunk of the funding available to the PA has been allocated to creating a security force -- as a natural consequence of all the agreements since Oslo that were mainly based on the premise of the supremacy of "Israeli security".

I was in Tunis as former fighters boarded the planes "returning to Palestine". That spring and summer of 1994 there were a lot of mixed feelings: apprehension and joy and sadness. In spite of all the bravado, many former fighters I talked to were acutely aware of the price they were paying to see or return to Palestine. They were aware they would be confronted by a system controlled by Israel. Some harboured a glimmer of hope that the road would lead to independence, but many shed tears at Tunis airport, and pictures of two fallen PLO leaders were held high: Salah Khalaf -- also known by his nome de guerre Abu Iyad -- killed in 1991, and Khalil Al-Wazir -- Abu Jihad -- who was assassinated by Israel in 1988, in an effort to make a statement or convince the deportees that the struggle would continue.

Some of those who returned were leaders of the first Intifada, deported by Israel to Tunis and Jordan. Among those were Marwan Barghouti, the popular Palestinian leader sentenced to five life terms by an Israeli court, and Mohamed Dahlan, legendary hero of the streets of Gaza and founder of the Fatah Youth, who bravely confronted heavily armed Israeli forces on the streets and in the labyrinths of Gaza's towns and refugee camps.

Like most deportees, Barghouti and Dahlan wanted to return at any price. They, along with others, were shocked by the stagnation of the exiled PLO in Tunis, seeing no future in effecting change anywhere except on Palestinian soil.

Marwan Barghouti, who has become a friend and neighbour of mine, was not interested in the Oslo terms. He was, like many deportees, interested in the potential of what they could create once upon return. They felt like fish out of water. But there is another result to those years in exile, which we witnessed recently in the tension that swept Gaza.

A new crisis germinated when many of the former fighters and deportees faced two realities on return: firstly, that their future lay within the security apparatus -- a role which secured them a basic livelihood, status and a political role. Secondly, that new roles of the game did not rely on their "nationalist credentials" but on their ability to play the new game -- with its financial, political and military aspects. Soon after PLO officials started arriving in Gaza in the summer of 1994, junior and senior aides started appearing with briefcases full of dollars, speaking about huge economic deals "all in the name of the national interest".

I watched in horror in 1994 and 1995 as revered young leaders of the first Intifada moved in the company of some of the most corrupt PLO functionaries -- at times in the capacity of body guards, at times providing armed escorts during the negotiation of secret deals with Israeli corporations (I am specifically referring to a particular set of talks on fuel) at the Eretz border crossing.

When I confronted two of the most popular Intifada leaders with this -- both close associates of Dahlan -- one of them retorted: "Do you have an idea how it feels that we almost lost our lives, not to mention our families, to poverty while we were in jail only now to discover that the revolution is over; it is all about influence."

Sami Abdu Samhadaneh, another hero of the first Intifada, reacted with sarcasm when I asked how he felt about joining the security apparatus, one which involves cracking down on other Palestinians: "Are you ready to get us jobs? Are your friends, the Palestinian intellectuals who write scathing articles, ready to find us scholarships so that thousands of us can find other jobs?"

Sami is now the head of one of the many special security offices, a position which has not prevented Israel from declaring him an enemy and terrorist. Between 1994 and 2000 many of the former heroes not only joined the security apparatus, and some even had a part in the arrest of their former comrades in arms, but alarmingly became involved in all manner of illegal activities, from car theft to illegitimate deal brokering.

It goes without saying that such corruption is not justifiable. And there are also many figures who preferred to face poverty rather than compromise their integrity. But that said, it is time for the entire Palestinian society, especially the intellectuals, to assume and acknowledge their own responsibility and role in ignoring generations of fighters, who have gone from being heroes to members of an inflated security system, entrusted with executing the agreements with Israel.

It would be easy to totally dismiss Dahlan and his supporters, and there are many legitimate questions to raise about his campaign. He has yet to come clean and openly declare his agenda. However, it is necessary to analyse the phenomena of the movement behind Dahlan's support and indulge in critical self- assessment of the real meaning and the real dimension of corruption which pervades the Palestinian system. As the situation now stands, the Palestinian intelligentsia, or many of its members, can pretend that sophistication equals financial and political integrity.

But this is self-delusion, because the system, triggered by Oslo not only led to a monstrous and dangerously armed security apparatus, but has involved more subtle forms, which assume an appearance of respectability.

The difference between the former fighters and the current armed and masked young people -- who resort to questionable and sometimes violent actions -- and many members of the intellectual elite who have achieved status and funding from international organisations eager to foster a system subservient to Israel, is very small indeed. They are all a product of the same system.

This is the system which is neglecting the 8,000-plus Palestinian political prisoners, thousands of injured and maimed and bereaved parents of the martyred, while fostering a dangerous and internal struggle.

In almost all statements, the majority of people demanding reform place the blame at the door of Arafat's crumbling bunker. He is seen as the one responsible for corrupting and favouring corrupt -- though from his view point loyal -- people. This is partly true, but this is also the system fostered by an international community pushing for Palestinian "subservience" in the false name of reforms.

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