For Palestinian activists fighting corruption, Trump’s attacks are making their work even harder

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, accountability is an uphill battle in the absence of basic laws and a working parliament

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas listens while US President Donald Trump makes a statement for the press before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2017, in New York. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski
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Earlier this month, cash-strapped Palestinians learned that their president Mahmoud Abbas had secretly approved a massive pay hike for ministers – finding out only because an anti-corruption collective leaked documents showing it online.

Indeed, both the Palestinian public and the Trump administration rate corruption in the Palestinian government as a top concern.

But when American officials and their allies attack the financially-strapped Palestinian Authority as untrustworthy in a push to delegitimise it, this all out assault on Palestinian sovereignty actually makes it harder for those working for more transparency and democratic reforms from within.

“The people are ready to move to the streets [in protest against corruption] but we don’t want to go to the streets because of the situation,” said Sohaib Zahda, an activist from Hebron. “Because of the Trump deal and because of the PA’s financial status… We don't want the USA and Israel to exploit this movement.”

The space for criticism consequently tightens when Palestinians feel that opponents of Palestinian self-determination take their critiques – intended to advance the end goal of independence – as evidence against it.

“We know very much that some of our reports and information… are misused to attack the Palestinian government and Palestinian Authority not because they are corrupt but because of our government and president’s political position,” vis-à-vis the Trump administration, said Majdi Abu Zaid, the head of Ramallah-based AMAN, the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity.

Since taking office, US President Donald Trump has worked to sideline Palestinian leaders and institutions, such as through cutting off aid and unilaterally pushing policies favourable to Israel in Jerusalem and the occupied Golan Heights.

The men making these decisions all say they are acting in the Palestinian people’s best interests. “The hope is, is that over time, they can become capable of government,” Mr Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner recently told Axios on HBO.

Palestinians, according to all indicators, disagree. Instead, activists and organisers said, the debate over corruption and transparency is about strengthening Palestinian rights – not legitimising the continuation of the Israeli occupation, as Mr Kushner’s statements did.

"Getting rid of corruption shortens the occupation and adds to the confidence of the people in the struggle for liberation and independence against the occupation," Shawqi Al Issa, a former Palestinian minister who resigned in 2015 over corruption in the government, posted on Facebook on Friday. "And not silence around corruption." (He declined a request for an interview.)

The western-backed and international aid-dependent PA has been bogged down by repeated accusations of corruption since it was established in the 1990s as part of the Oslo Peace Accords with Israel, which were intended to establish a state in the Palestinian Territories that Israel captured in 1967. Corruption at the top has trickled down to connections and bribes being necessary for managing bureaucracy and a facet of everyday life.

Initially slated as an interim-five year government, today the PA is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah and controls parts of the West Bank (mainly major Palestinian cities and villages), while Israel controls the other 60 per cent and is the ultimate authority in the West Bank.

These days there is widespread hunger among Palestinians for new ideas and leadership – but not many outlets. Over eighty per cent of Palestinians want President Mahmoud Abbas, 83-years-old and last elected in 2005 for a four-year-term, to resign. Anger over the pay hikes for ministers in part stemmed from the fact that the Palestinian parliament hasn’t actually met since 2007, when it shut after a civil war between the Fatah-dominated PA in the occupied West Bank and its rival Hamas, which now controls the Gaza Strip.

People are additionally frustrated with the PA’s spending on itself as its own debt rises and unemployment in the West Bank looms around 20 per cent. The salaries of other PA civil servants have consequently been reduced, while each year there are more and more university graduates fighting for a few good jobs.

Aman’s annual report for 2018 highlighted “a decline in the openness and transparency of the government,” with people often feeling like they have no idea how their money is spent or how contracts between the government and the private sector are carried out. Mr Abbas’ own sons were implicated in a corruption scandal after leaked documents in 2015 showed them and other officials trying to use public funds to pay for luxury homes and other personal expenses.

The public perception of rampant corruption and mismanagement of public funds within the PA, however, does not reflect the reality that the problems are actually improving, according to Mr Abu Ziad of Aman. “Comparing with when the PA started in the ‘90s and early 2000s a lot has been achieved, especially in building institutions and governance issues,” he said. “In the beginning of the PA there was a lot of corruption, but people didn’t know about it and weren’t aware.”

Now, with “social media and all of these things, so people know everything now,” Mr Abu Ziad said, continuing later, “But the problem that is happening the last years is that we don't have a parliament and this has affected the checks and balances system.”

Mr Abu Ziad cited as one example that employment within the government is now more transparent and merit-based than in the past — except for the top positions, which remain dominated by the same group of elite men and the patronage networks and privileges that sustain them.

Though a PA-Hamas détente remains unlikely, Mr Abu Ziad stressed that what Palestinians needed to enhance integrity and accountability was an access to information law and a national strategy against corruption (all best done with a parliament). The previous Palestine government, which had passed the pay hikes, shut down talk of an access to information law, according to Mr Abu Ziad.

The newly appointed President, Mohammed Shtayyeh, so far appeared to be more interested in building the people’s trust, Mr Abu Ziad added, but has decades of financial and political mismanagement stacked against him.

In the meantime, anti-corruption civil society movements are continuing on, like a Facebook page that Mr Zahda, the activist, co-funded to aggregate discussions and leaked documents on the issue.

Mr Zahda, who is also a labour activist, was an organiser in a wave of protests in late 2018 against a new social security law. Demonstrators said it was needed, but that the PA couldn’t be trusted to handle and which people couldn’t afford to pay. The PA rescinded the law in late January as a result of public pressure.

But the PA responded more forcefully to other protests in recent years: In June 2018, Palestinian security official launched what Amnesty International called “a vicious crackdown” on demonstrations in Ramallah against the PA’s sanctions on Gaza. Over the years, HRW has documented systematic abuse and even torture by Palestinian security forces.

All of this has made Mr Zahda wary of more mass protests for now, as they could both turn violent and could be used to undermine the PA and Palestinian demands for equal rights and ending the occupation.

“We don't want any conflict with the PA, like violence,” said Mr Zahda. “We have to calculate and take into consideration many things… We have a responsibility as Palestinians to save our society.”

Mr Zahda said he has learned from the Arab Spring how easily civil society movements can be exploited by others and turn violent. Palestinians had their own wave of protests in 2011, though they centered in part on unity between the West Bank and Gaza, which still hasn’t been reached.

Mr Zahda also blamed Israel and America for what he described as a policy of trying to prop up and control the PA to do their bidding.

“When we fight as Palestinians the corruption we also fight Israel and at the same time the USA,” he said. “This corruption is a result of Israel and USA considerations. They want someone who will just say yes, yes, yes.”

“The change takes time,” he added. “It's the system. It’s not just one person.”

Earlier this week, Palestinian police detained anti-corruption activist Fayez Al Sweiti after he posted documents online allegedly from the anti-corruption commission accusing another official of corruption. After the documents dropped, the anti-corruption commission said they were forged. Mr Al Sweiti refused to disclose to police his source and now is released on bail awaiting trial for forgery, according to Ammar Dwaik, the Director General of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights.

Mr Dawik said this was a clear case of freedom of expression and Mr Al Sweiti’s case should be dropped.

Yet he cautioned that while “the public has become increasingly sensitive to issues of corruption,” the lack of parliament, laws enshrining access to information, and overall restricting space have meant that rumours and speculation swirl. “It’s not a healthy environment to have a constructive debate about corruption,” he said.

Facing concerted challenges from American and Israeli officials, “the PA is in a very defensive mood,” he said. “So they are intolerant to this kind of criticism.”