Av: Tom Gross
Sunday December 5th 1999
Tom Gross in Jerusalem
THE Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has salted away billions of pounds for the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in secret foreign bank accounts and investments, including property in London. The disclosure about the hidden wealth of his PLO comes amid deepening economic hardship in his Gaza and West Bank fiefdoms. It will also hamper his efforts to woo a huge influx of European aid for his fledgling Palestinian regime.
The timing of the disclosures could not have been more embarrassing as Mr Arafat, seated before a stage built to resemble a giant Christmas crib, yesterday opened Millennium celebrations in Bethlehem. He hopes that the year of festivities in Jesus’s birthplace will showcase his push for an independent Palestinian state.
New details of the vast PLO fortune he controls have come to light following a series of computer break-ins at the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Tunis.
The hackers discovered that the PLO maintains about 5 billion in numbered bank accounts in Zurich, Geneva and New York. It also holds accounts with smaller sums in north Africa, Europe and Asia. They are not registered in the PLO’s name, but in the names of private individuals.
The records also showed that the PLO owns shares on the Frankfurt, Paris and Tokyo stock exchanges, including stock in the German car giant Mercedes Benz, and property in prestigious areas of European capitals, including Mayfair in London.
The organisation, which once specialised in aircraft hijackings, also has shares in several airlines, including the national carriers of the Maldives and Guinea Bissau. The computer security breach is believed on the West Bank to have been carried out by PLO officials disgruntled with Mr Arafat’s leadership. «They wished to dispel the smokescreen created around the PLO’s finances,» a Palestinian official told The Telegraph.
Mr Arafat has always refused to comment on reports about the foreign bank accounts. But the disclosures caused anger in poverty-stricken Gaza. One embittered Palestinian said: «Why is he sitting on a mountain of gold, while there is a desperate lack of jobs and medical supplies here?»
Mr Arafat is both president of the Palestinian Authority, the semi-autonomous organisation that governs parts of Gaza and the West Bank, and the chairman of the PLO, which maintains its headquarters in Tunis, its base during its terrorist heyday.
The creation of the Palestinian Authority, the embryonic government for a future Palestinian state, was supposed to lead to the winding-up of the PLO – and make the Palestinian leadership accountable and law-abiding. But the authority has in fact been repeatedly accused by domestic opponents of rampant corruption and mismanagement.
The web of secret bank accounts and assets held around the world is believed to be so complex that only Mr Arafat himself and two of his most trusted aides know the overall picture. Much of the money is the result of «taxes» levied on Palestinians working in Kuwait and other Gulf states in the Seventies and Eighties, and of donations from wealthy states such as Saudi Arabia.
The assets are controlled by Mr Arafat himself and it is not known what would happen to them if the 70-year-old, who is said to be suffering from Parkinson’s disease, should die. An Israeli intelligence analyst said: «These revelations are almost certainly not the whole story. No one can know the full extent of the PLO’s assets. They are so well hidden.»
The disclosures are also likely to prompt international donors, including the European Union countries, to ask why Mr Arafat is still demanding aid for his Palestinian authority. Nor will they have been impressed by his decision to invite Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslavia’s president, to Bethlehem.
Av: Tom Gross