Corruption and Tyranny

A new biography brands Yasser Arafat's Palestine rotten with corruption and besmirched by human rights abuses which bear comparison with the days of the Israeli occupation.

by Patrick Bishop, The Hamilton Spectator, Friday, September 18, 1998

The unflattering portrait by Said Aburish, a leading Palestinian author, shows Yasser Arafat as a wily Arab tribal chief, heroic in his way, but utterly unsuited for the leadership of a modern state.

Since returning to take charge of the occupation territories in July 1994, he has built a rickety political structure in his image in which loyalty buys immunity from the law and sycophancy is rife.

All criticism is stifled and opponents of the regime are treated with systematic brutality and disregard for their freedoms.

Arafat: From Defender to Dictator seems set to cause a major stir when it appears later this month.

Arab societies are traditionally respectful of their leaders, and especially towards someone such as Arafat, who, as Aburish states, was uniquely able to steer the Palestinians along the rocky road to autonomy.

In his critique, the author, who comes originally from Bethany, near Jerusalem, speaks for many Palestinians whose hopes that the Oslo peace agreement would usher in an era of freedom have been shattered as much by the behaviour of their own leader as by Israeli intransigence.

The author discloses a pattern of cronyism in which flatterers are rewarded with jobs and money despite their incompetence and political favours are bought and sold that goes back to the early days of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

While paying tribute to his courage as a soldier and a politician, Aburish states: "Arafat was always a much better military commander and propagandist than an organizer. . . . He paid much more attention to image-creating than to building a sound military structure."

A hugely effective fund-raiser, soliciting money from individuals and rich Arab states, he made no attempt to establish financial controls. Although he personally is uninterested in money, many of his entourage have lined their pockets over the years with donations to the cause.

The core of Aburish's criticism is that when Arafat arrived with the PLO back in Gaza after a 27-year absence to lead the Palestinian National Authority, he ruined the chance to plant a model society in the region.

"Here was an opportunity to establish a real democracy," Aburish said recently, "but instead they imported the habits of the neighbouring Arab regimes."

Arafat also brought with him the bad practices of the court that grew around him in exile in Jordan, Lebanon and Tunis.

The local leaders who sustained the Palestinian uprising that hastened progress towards autonomy were disregarded and abused.

Hanan Ashrawi, who won international admiration for her dignified presentation of the Palestinian cause during the Washington peace negotiations, was referred to by him as a whore.

Instead, he rewarded his entourage, regardless of ability. They "owed their loyalty to the chief and not to the Palestinian cause," writes Aburish.

"To the people of the occupied territories, the newcomers were an alien governing group, many of whom spoke with Lebanese, Syrian or other accents."

Arafat subverted the institutions of the authority to form what was effectively a one-party system, appointing cronies to the executive committee and turning the legislative council into an impotent talking shop.

Elsewhere, "he replaced the elected or independent traditional leadership with an old guard of incompetent loyalists."

In setting up a broadcasting service, Aburish says, "Arafat was determined to deny his people the benefit of the opinion of others," and the press has been muzzled.

Arafat appointed himself chairman of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction and "personally continued to use large sums . . . to buy the loyalty of people, either directly or by hiring their relatives."

Aburish says that Arafat, while clean himself, overlooked the underhand dealings of his Tunis entourage.

Perhaps the biggest failing of the Arafat regime, though, has been in its blind and persistent disregard of human rights.

"The security departments responsible to Arafat are behind the deaths of 16 Palestinian citizens in custody.

"There are 40 people who have been detained for over two years without being charged, and 117 who have suffered the same fate for over one year.

"Families who complained about the beatings and torture of prisoners have been threatened."

Aburish concludes that Arafat has outlived his usefulness as the Palestinians' leader: "Arafat is a throwback to the age of a brave, uneducated wily Arab chief. He is not a modern leader."


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