Omar’s Blog #6: Occupied with corruption — Palestine, an exceptional case

Ramallah

Last time I wrote on how only accountability will save the Middle East Peace Process. I pointed out that both sides need to take responsibility for their actions. Also, I am sure that pressuring both sides to negotiate would bring us closer to peace. Of course, under reasonable conditions such as a break in settlement plans or threats to stop the security coordination. Nevertheless, I cannot stress enough how important accountability is. This article will try and break down the political structure in Palestine, the room for corruption, and possible extremist sentiments. I will also provide the main implications regarding the geographical situation in Palestine. In my opinion, the geographical implications are the most worrying, leading to a literal political divide and widespread corruption.

Oslo: number of possibilities with countless limitations?

To start mapping out the corruption, we have to look at the very beginning of Oslo. The Oslo Accords made sure that the Palestinians and Israelis would finally shake each other’s hands, negotiate and most importantly recognize each other. In five years the most important obstacles had to be resolved. In my previous piece, I noted that these were: The right of return of Palestinian refugees, the settlements, the status of Jerusalem, the final borders, and the call for an independent Palestinian State. In the meantime, both parties agreed to semi-Palestinian determination. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was established. The PNA would serve as a temporary structure until the Palestinian State was established. 

Political representation in and outside Palestine.

Next to the PNA also the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was established. The PLC serves as the parliament for Palestine. This council is only elected by Palestinians who hold a green ID card, issued after Oslo. The President of Palestine is elected as well by Palestinians holding the green ID card as well. Before the PNA was established, the Palestine Liberation Organization was the only form of outside representation Palestinians had. The PLO consists of all Palestinian political parties and/or fractions. This is because these movements were the only way Palestinians could organize themselves. And in cooperation through the PLO, the single movements were able to voice themselves as the recognized representation of Palestinians worldwide. The PLO is thus different from the PNA, yet there are connections between both. The PLO consists of three bodies: the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the Palestinian Central Council (PCC), and the Executive Committee (EC). The PNC is made up of 740 members, whereof also members from the PLC. The majority is meant to represent Palestinians worldwide, also those without the green ID card. The PNC in turn chooses the PCC for pragmatic reasons. The PNC cannot come together frequently since its members are mostly in the diaspora. The PCC, therefore, acts as a link between the PNC and the EC. The EC is the governing body and therefore the most significant one. Since many countries do not agree on hosting elections for the PNC, most members are assigned. This creates a weak link, where the representation of people is therefore unbalanced. However, on the other side, it is hard to continue without one, and therefore the only, yet undesirable option is to offer a fixed list of nominees. This reflects further on the chosen members of the PCC and EC. 

At the last elections of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas manged to win the majority vote, even though the year before, the majority of the votes went to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Failed cooperation and major political interests inside and outside Palestine caused the cabinet with Hamas to fail. Hamas seized the opportunity and took absolute power in Gaza. The terrorist organization is ruling a population trapped between Egypt and Israel by force, while also being physically disconnected from the West-Bank. It is interesting to note that nevertheless, most significant affairs such as salary payment are still the responsibility of the Palestinians in the West-Bank.

The situation on the ground:  Disrupted and disconnected.

The situation on the ground is a major factor in the Palestinian political, economic, and security dynamics. The Palestinians and Israelis agreed that the Palestinian National Authority would oversee parts of self-rule in the West-Bank and Gaza, where supposedly after five years it would receive complete power. These areas are known as A, B and C. Area A (18%) consists out of the biggest Palestinian cities, where the PNA has civil and security authority without interference of Israel. Area B (22%) are areas where the PNA and Israel coordinate civil and security affairs together, while Area C (60%), which is the largest and most vital part of the Westbank, is under complete control of Israel. In Area C you can find all the settlements as well. As I mentioned before, this was merely a transitional agreement that would serve for five years. However, this transitional structure has been continuing up until now…

Besides that, Israel deliberately violates the agreement on a daily basis. Area A is invaded daily by the Israeli military. Settlement expansion, deemed illegally under International law, has been growing exponentially and official plans to annex large parts of the West-Bank have been announced.

Source: Aljazeera

The graph above shows the reality on the ground in the West-Bank as described above. There is a literal disconnection between Areas A, consisting of the most significant Palestinian cities. Next to that, even Ramallah, which is considered the seat of the PNA, is raided often. Also, Palestinian governing bodies such as ministries are prone to these raids.

Corruption: a complex assessment based on a complex reality.

The situation above either politically or geographically has introduced a gateway to corruption. There have been a lot of questions or remarks on corruption in Palestine. Also, corruption has been used as an argument against Palestinian Statehood. Of course I do not desire corruption in any place in the world. I see corruption as a major limitation to Palestinian advancement, yet I do not see it as a reason against Palestinian Statehood. I have tried to map the corruption in Palestine and therefore decided to dive into the annual reports of the Palestine Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC). To my surprise, in the past eight years concrete steps have been made towards fighting corruption in Palestine.

One of the most notable cases I came across was found in the annual report from 2013. According to the PACC a financial director within the Palestinian Petrol Organization, responsible for distributing petrol across Palestinian fuel points, had committed fraud amounting to approximately 45 million Israeli Shekels (over 11 million Euros). This financial crime was committed together with some in a department linked to another operational director. The financial director had fled to Jordan and was later extradited to the occupied Palestinian Territories, where he faced trial by court. 

Another notable case was that a group of employees positioned within the council of the Higher court of justice had managed to steal millions of Shekels across the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho. The sum of money amounted to approximately 6,23 million shekels or 1,586 million Euros. The main post offices in Ramallah, Jenin, and Bethlehem also suffer from corruption cases. In 2014, the money stolen from all the investigated main offices in these cities amounted to more than 1.6 million shekels or almost 410K Euros. Additionally, In the same year, a postal director had confessed to having taken 977K Shekels (~249K Euros) and returned 783K Shekels (199K Euros) directly. However, the exact details regarding the sums of money acquired were revealed in a report written in 2015. When I was reading the reports, I wondered why the PACC revealed part of the details in 2014 and the other in 2015. Another interesting point is that PACC did not mention from which city this person was, as it did with all other suspects.

In all the reports I have read, the cases were similar to those described above: wide institutional fraud in the mid-high and lower ranks. I wondered why no investigation has been done on key figures in the higher tiers. The PACC is supposedly independent and has the right to investigate on its mandate. However, the PACC was formed upon the presidential decree, meaning there was direct involvement from the Presidency. I was wondering then how independent the PACC is or whether it has limited recourses to operate effectively. Maybe it is a combination of both. In 2010 Aljazeera interviewed the former head of the PACC Rafiq Natsh on corruption within the higher ranks of the Palestinian Authority. Natsha replied that they already imprisoned five top officials and one other security official.

Another limit I found on combatting corruption within the Palestinian Authority was the direct occupation. Another report by Sawsan Ramahi was very critical of the PA and its widespread corruption. She mentioned that there have been corruption problems since the start of the establishment of the PA. Also, the lack of political willingness from the top was one of the main reasons why the PA has not been fighting corruption in its institutions. She called upon the civil society to take up this role and try solving these matters. And I agree with her. Civil society plays a strong role in holding public officials accountable for their actions. In their National Cross-Sectoral Strategy for Integrity and Anti-Corruption 2020-2022, the PACC lists several limitations. Basically, the Palestinian legislative system is incomplete and civil society is not engaged enough in combatting corruption. They call for active engagement through awareness campaigns at schools but also to all members of society. Next to that, the Palestinian public institutions lack pillars of transparency and the correct policies. Also, they need more internal units for monitoring organizational processes within the institutions. The PACC also added that the PLC is the best body to make effective legislation for this problem, but that the PLC has been out of service for over 12 years. They then continue to stress the importance of more engagement of the Palestinian president and the Palestinian cabinet, being the face of Palestinian governance. 

In her report, Sawsan Ramahi, also stresses the importance of civil society and ordinary people in the fight against corruption. Besides, she too finds that Israel is facilitating the corruption in Palestine, as it is a sign of joint effort with benefits and losses. But that there has been an attempt on portraying this as an Israeli attempt, which is not. Next to that, I see that there is a real effort from both regulating bodies and civil society on tackling corruption in Palestine.

The complexity combined.

The case of Palestine is an extraordinary one. I noted a pattern in the debates I have regarding the Palestinian and Israeli situation. What about democracy? What about the corruption and what about Hamas? I think these are important issues, yet I find the assumptions made unfair and largely short-sighted. Earlier I described the geographical implications Palestinian face in everyday life. I ask you to take a second and think of one country this fragmented. Palestine or the Palestinian territories are not even properly connected and look like single cells, surrounded by settlements. Which is exactly the point of the settlements. The Palestinian territories can hardly function properly and yes, the Palestinians have a responsibility too. But what I see, is that the Palestinians have a strong will to fight corruption and possess fully functional institutions. However, if one needs the approval of another actor for every step one wants to make, functioning becomes hardly possible.

The corruption at the borders is an enormous one too. However, even the borders are not controlled by Palestinians. This geographical situation is a major implication that creates a perfect vacuum for illegal activities. Here is another case to prove the point: Palestinians in Jerusalem are considered stateless; they are neither Israeli nor officially residents of the Palestinian authority. Israel does not recognize them as citizens of the State of Israel, nor wants them to be residents of the Palestinian Territories. They hold a special ID, which is the blue Jerusalemite ID. These Jerusalemites are considered Palestinians by the PA. In this case, a Jerusalemite was found guilty of falsifying 10 million Shekels on imported Palestinian cars. He later was imprisoned in Beitonia, near Ramallah by the Palestinians. The prison was later raided by the Israeli Defense Forces, freeing the suspect, which eventually led him to walk free from his accountability. The PACC wrote on this case that the suspect had threatened the head of the PACC, telling him that he would let Israel deal with him.  I personally witnessed a similar situation in Hebron. This is a major Palestinian city, with a divided center occupied by an Israeli settlement. The city itself is considered Area A, while the city center is considered Area C. This means that Palestine does not hold a mandate on the complete city. Many suspects and fraudsters, therefore, find their refuge in the city center where the Palestinian Authorities are prohibited from entering. 

The fight against corruption in Palestine is not waterproof and for the foreseeable future, it will not become waterproof either. The occupation kills all initiatives and attempts to establish a fully functioning government in the Palestinian territories. If ordinary Palestinians cannot travel freely between major Palestinian cities and towns, do not expect that the authority can. I think Palestine can be considered as a utopia for anyone wanting to flee accountability and justice for any crime. 

As long as the Palestinian people including the Palestinians from East-Jerusalem, cannot vote for their leaders freely, because it is not in some of their interests, democracy will never prevail. Also, I deem real democracy under occupation as completely impossible. Not only because of the geographical limitations and the logistical problems it brings with it. But also due to the fact Palestinians are not safe in their homes and have thousands of other issues to deal with in their daily life. The same goes for the fight against corruption. It takes an unprecedented amount of time, effort, and money to fight it. But the system is broken and won’t ever function correctly in its current form. The current situation is merely a guarantee of a dream-killing future where citizens are not able to participate in society. This introduces a gateway for extremism. However, there are no worrying indicators on the growth of extremism in Palestinian society, even though some might think so. 

The Palestinian political structure could work on paper. But under occupation, there is no room for new candidates. Not every Palestinian is allowed to cast a vote on preferred candidates, as is the norm in other countries. A direct consequence of this, that the political establishment pre-2007 is making up lists and quotas with limited external influence from regular Palestinians. The lack of influence is a direct consequence of the occupation, restricting effective political participation inside and outside Palestine. Not only Palestinians in the diaspora are unable to influence politics, but also Palestinians in (East)-Jerusalem and Gaza. 

Palestinian Statehood will not solve all problems at once, that is for sure. But what Palestinian Statehood will do is create safe opportunities for the ordinary Palestinian, younger, and older, to finally take initiative in tackling the issues. All this without direct intervention from an occupying power, dictating the rules. The willingness is there and the openness to improve is there too. We should decide on how we want to treat Palestine. Our approach towards the Palestinians does not complete the equation we are dealing with. It is unjust to demand things from Palestinians as if they are in full charge of the affairs, while they are not able to travel freely in their own territories. One time we hold them responsible for affairs beyond their control and downplay the occupation and the other time we do not. We should take a clear direction on this matter and understand that the Palestinians do not hold sovereignty.

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