There have been consistent reports that Suha Arafat, widow of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, has withdrawn tens of millions of dollars’ worth of investment from Tunis, prompting the Tunisian authorities to strip her of the Tunisian citizenship.
Some news agency reported this week that Suha’s investments in Tunisia were estimated to be in the vicinity of $40 million.
Well-connected sources in Ramallah have intimated that Suha Arafat “inherited” hundreds of millions of dollars registered under her deceased husband’s name in several European banks. The vast bulk of the money is believed to have belonged to Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
This writer sought to raise this subject with several Palestinian officials in Ramallah.
The officials agreed to speak rather reluctantly and only on condition of “anonymity” citing the “sensitivity of the subject.”
I spoke to one veteran official in Ramallah, who I was told is responsible for dealing with “the issues of administrative and financial corruption.”
The man didn’t ask for anonymity, but I have opted to not mention his name lest he be physically harmed by the gurus of corruption or fired from his job.
M.A. (his initials) said he was well aware of the “subject” and would love to see “real journalists dig for the truth.”
“You know and I know that this is the Palestinian people’s money. These millions didn’t belong to Yasser Arafat, they belong to the Palestinian people. Besides, the fact that these millions were embezzled or arrogated four or five years ago doesn’t mean that it is hopeless or too late to set the record straight.
“On the other hand, we can’t just indict Suha Arafat or anybody else based on rumors and unsubstantiated reports.”
M.A. said the first culprit in this issue is the Palestinian Legislative Council, which he said should have placed the subject on the top of its agenda from the very inception.
“I don’t know why they didn’t discuss the subject. I think the failure to discuss this paramount matter amounted to a breach of trust and betrayal of the people.”
I confronted Hasan Khreishe, deputy-speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, with these serious accusations and asked him what he knew about Suha Arafat’s alleged millions.
Khreishe, speaking cautiously and circumspectly, said the legislative council didn’t start an investigation into Suha Arafat’s wealth because “we didn’t have credible evidence warranting launching an investigation.”
I asked the veteran MP, who in 2003 headed the investigation of so-called cement scandal, if he knew the fate of PLO secret accounts and investment schemes in Palestine and abroad, Khreishe said he didn’t know much and the little he knew came from the media.
Asked if he thought the Palestinian government should seek to obtain information from foreign governments, including the Tunisian government, as to details of bank accounts belonging to Arafat’s widow, Khreishe said “this the government’s business, not ours.”
When further asked if he would press the Palestinian government to ask foreign governments for information on Suha Arafat’s financial details, Khreishe sought to evade the question, saying that “this matter is more judicial than legislative", and that the ball was in the media’s court to produce concrete evidence incriminating Suha Arafat.
“Two hundred million of dollars”
Very few people were aware of Yasser Arafat’s financial assets during his lifetime. One of these was Muhammed Rashid, the late Palestinian leader’s economic advisor, who is now living in Cairo.
Rashid has consistently refused to give details of Arafat’s secret bank accounts and other assets, saying he would report only to the Palestinian Authority.
According to an al Jazeera report a few years ago, Arafat had written a will leaving some of his fortune to his wife and their daughter, Zahwa. However, other reports said Arafat left no will, leaving most of his fortune in the hands of Rashid and Suha. However, it is uncertain if Rashid behaved single-mindedly with Arafat’s financial empire, or if he “settled things” quietly with Suha following Arafat’s death.
At the time of his death, Arafat’s assets were estimated at $200 million by the Forbes magazine. Forbes listed him ninth in its ranking of the world’s wealthiest heads of state, even though he was a ruler without a country and many of his people were (are) suffering from abject poverty. Other sources, including the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), put Arafat’s fortune at $6 billion dollars, a figure exaggerated according to several PLO figures I have talked to.
Suha Tawil, 30 years younger than Arafat, married the PLO leader in 1992 in Tunisia where she worked for the PLO headquarters in Tunis. Suha returned with Arafat to Gaza where the couple lived alternately in Gaza and Ramallah. However, in 2001, she took their child, Zahwa, to Paris, where they continued to live until the late 2005, when they moved to Tunis.
Suha lived a lavish and luxurious life in the French capital where it was rumored that the money she spent per month would cover the basic needs of five thousand Palestinian refugees in a place like Jabalya in the Gaza Strip.
In 2004, the French authorities began investigating the transfer of $11.5 million from Swiss bank accounts to accounts in France controlled by Suha Arafat.
Then Suha reportedly lambasted the French authorities for ordering the investigation.
“What is so strange for the Palestinian president to send any amount of money to his family and his wife, who is protecting the Palestinian interests abroad, and the money came and will come legally,” Suha was quoted as saying during an interview with the London-based Saudi-financed al Hayat Arabic newspaper.
Following Arafat’s death in November 2004, and wishing to settle “the problem” with Suha quietly, Palestinian Authority leaders, e.g. Fatah leaders, reportedly struck a deal with Suha whereby she agreed to receive a large amount of Arafat’s fortune as well as a monthly stipend of tens of thousands of dollars for the rest of her life, all in return for shutting her mouth.
While the exact details of Suha’s present fortune are still not known, it is very likely that the bulk of her assets have been arrogated from monies that belonged to the Palestinian people. Suha was not known as a businesswoman and she didn’t hail from a particularly rich family. Her mother, Rimonda Tawil published a weekly magazine in East Jerusalem, called al Awda, which was financed by the PLO. And she inherited very few assets from her father.
So, how did she amass all this wealth, all these hundreds of millions of dollars?
In simple English, it seems we are talking about a huge theft by every conceivable standard of logic. I know that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty. However, it this case, the guilt screams to the seventh haven. People don’t just make hundreds of millions that easily and in such a short period of time.
Besides Yasser Arafat’s bank accounts, secret or otherwise, didn’t belong to him personally but to the Palestinian people.
More to the point, the late Palestinian leader, with all due respect to his struggle for freedom and statehood, had no right to leave hundreds of millions or tens of millions of dollars to his wife and daughter. These millions were not his. They belonged to the people.
Hence, it is imperative that the Palestinian society raise the issue and exert meaningful pressure on government officials so that they immediately order a full and comprehensive investigation into Suha Arafat’s finances.
The people of Palestine have every right to know where every cent of Suha’s millions came from, and if a genuine investigation is carried out and incriminating evidence is obtained, then the PA will have to seek her extradition so that she will stand trial for corruption and embezzlement of the Palestinian people’s money.
This is test case not only for the Palestinian resolve to fight corruption, but also for the seriousness of our quest for independence and statehood.
After all, corrupt politicians who cover up corruption and protect the grand thieves can’t be entrusted with the fate of the people and the country.
* Published by MA'AN NEWS AGENCY on August 18, 2007. Khalid Amayreh is a Palestinian journalist living in East Jerusalem.