Palestine Authority rocked by corruption allegations

 

Mr Yasser Arafat, due in Brussels today for an EU summit, and possibly for a meeting with Israel's Foreign Minister, Mr David Levy, leaves behind a Palestinian Authority rocked by its own auditors'

allegations of massive corruption.

A report compiled earlier this summer by the PA's state comptroller found that an incredible $326 million - almost half of the entire 1997 budget - had been frittered away through corruption or incompetent management by top officials. Mr Arafat appointed two committees to check the comptroller's claims and, although there has been some quibbling over figures, the thrust of the charges is apparently being confirmed even more undeniably as the committees question ministers and lower-level staff.

The grave findings fuel rumours that Mr Arafat is about to sack some of his top ministers. Mr Jamil Tarifi, the minister of civil affairs, is one of those mentioned. Mr Freih Abu Medein, the minister of justice, is already said to have tendered his resignation, although there are conflicting reports over whether Mr Arafat has accepted it, and whether it has any connection to the allegations.

Some reports suggest that Mr Arafat had been planning to dismiss

Mr Abu Medein several weeks ago, but froze the move after Israeli and

US officials demanded the minister's removal for defending the death penalty introduced for Palestinian land dealers selling West Bank and

Jerusalem land to Jews. Mr Arafat apparently did not want to be seen to be bowing to Israeli dictates.

Against a background of human rights abuses, however, Mr Arafat did last month dismiss his attorney general, Mr Khalid al-Kidreh. He had become infamous for allegedly tolerating torture and killings.

Allegations of corruption have multiplied in the 3 1/2 years since the Palestinian Authority was established, with the sense of grievance over the high living of senior PA ministers and officials heightened by the plummeting living standards of ordinary

Palestinians: in Gaza, average family income is now said to have fallen to below $400 a month.

Some of the financial chaos may be a consequence of ineffectual management. At the planning ministry, for example, 22 of the 50 staff enjoy the grand titles of either "director" or "director-general".

The deputy minister, Anis al-Qaq, explained disarmingly yesterday that "every employee wants to be a director". But even such over-population in top, and presumably well-paid, posts cannot explain the disappearance of hundreds of millions of dollars, and the suspicions now being investigated point to senior PA officials salting away large sums of money for their own gain. While nobody is making corruption charges against Mr Arafat (he undeniably employs a system of patronage but personally maintains a modest lifestyle), he too could be threatened if popular discontent with his officials intensifies.