The biggest political standoff in years just ended in the West Bank and barely anyone in Washington noticed.
A parliamentarian from Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ own party filed accusations of corruption against senior Palestinian Authority officials and then fled to the parliament building after the Palestinian Authority issued an arrest warrant for her. In the course of two weeks, Najat Abu Bakr’s sit-in protest sparked a political firestorm that drew crowds of Palestinians into the streets. It took weeks of tenacious negotiating, but she was finally able to secure safe passage back to her home district in Nablus last week.
The story began in February, when Abu Bakr accused PA minister of local governance Hussein al-Araj – a close Abbas associate – of pocketing roughly $200,000 in a water well deal. The Palestinian Authority leadership, widely recognized as a cesspool for corruption and for stifling criticism against the government, issued an arrest warrant shortly after her accusations. Abu Bakr then fled to the safety of the parliamentary building to avoid arrest. She has since turned over files documenting purported evidence of Araj’s case and other high-level corruption to the PA’s anti-corruption czar and the Fatah party head in parliament. It is still unclear whether the charges will ever be acknowledged or addressed.
This was not Abu Bakr’s first tangle with the Palestinian leadership over corruption. In 2013, she publicly sparred with former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a man—ironically—who was widely celebrated for his anti-corruption policies, over accusations that the technocratic leader was misusing funds for a personal security detail. In 2014, she blasted Fayyad’s successor, Rami Hamdallah, for clamping down on labor unions. She also accused PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki of nepotism in 2013 after al-Maliki elevated an official convicted of corruption to the post of ambassador.
However, her latest showdown with Abbas and company is unprecedented. Palestinian politicians typically invoke the cause of anti-corruption to score political points on the street. Few present documentation on alleged corruption, and the last time anyone sought refuge in a Palestinian Authority facility on this scale was when the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat was cornered in the presidential Muqata compound by the Israelis in response to his stoking the violence of the second Intifada.
At the same time, it’s a surprise we have not seen more of this. Corruption allegations have dogged the Palestinian Authority since its inception in the early 1990s. For example, an International Monetary Fund audit found in 2003 that Arafat had funneled $900 million in public funds to a special bank account from 1995 to 2000. Another report found that Arafat and his cronies had transferred nearly $300 million to Swiss bank accounts between 1997 and 2000. When Abbas succeeded Arafat as president of the PA in 2005, the U.S. hoped the long-time negotiator—with the help of Fayyad—would be able to reform the corrupt Palestinian system.
But Abbas and Fayyad failed to reverse course, and in 2006 Palestinian voters punished them for it by rewarding their rivals in Hamas. The Islamist group’s surprise victory in the legislative elections that year was due in no small part to their successful efforts to brand themselves as a transparent alternative to Abbas’s corrupt Fatah party. As one Fatah member lamented, his party had “paid the price because of its corrupt administration and a bunch of corrupt leaders.”
Rather than addressing the problem, Abbas seemed to embrace his role of corrupt autocrat. In the wake of a brief but bloody civil war that separated the West Bank and Gaza in 2007, Abbas consolidated his control over Fatah and the PA in the West Bank, pushing transparency and good governance to the bottom of his list of priorities. He forced out Fayyad in 2013 to the great chagrin of Western champions that sought to build a credible government in Ramallah from the ground up. A European Union audit found later that year that they PA had “mismanaged” over three billion dollars from 2009 to 2013.
Abbas finally set up an anti-corruption commission in 2010, but his 81-year old anti-corruption czar recently announced he has only recovered $70 million in five years. And in a recent interview, he insisted that the problem of corruption is simply not as bad as the stream of media reports over two decades suggest.
International donors are not buying it. According to a Reuters report, aid from the EU and others to the PA has fallen from around $1.3 billion per year to $700 million. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah released a statement in December declaring international aid had fallen 43% since 2011. And the financial crisis has had a real impact. After the government’s refusal to increase teacher salaries per a 2013 agreement, thousands of teachers have recently taken to protest in the streets.
These problems are not going to go away, either. Palestinian perception of corruption in the PA stood at 81% in 2014. Abbas’s rivals know this and continue to hammer home the problem as a means to score points on the Palestinian street. Mohammad Dahlan, an exiled senior Fatah official and rival of Abbas, regularly blasts Abbas as a “corrupt dictator” and even filed a lawsuit against Abbas in 2013 insisting “the Palestinian Authority and its leadership are tainted by corruption on a grand scale.” As does Jibril Rajoub, another senior Fatah official and aspiring successor to Abbas, who has called for a “balance of power through free democratic elections.”
Rajoub’s calls resonate on the Palestinian streets for a reason. Abbas is now eleven years into his four-year term. The corruption is as much political as it is financial. It was the toxic combination that ultimately prompted millions to take to the streets in of Arab capitals in the chaotic Arab Spring protests. The Palestinians have, until now, eluded such a crisis. But as Najat Abu Bakr’s sit-in demonstrated, the need for reform remains dire. What will it take for Washington to notice?