The Missing $105 Million

March 6, 2005

Issam Abu Issa is the founder of the Palestine International Bank. As the FPC disclosed in August 2004, The bank's assets of $105 million were confiscated by Chairman Arafat via the Palestinian Development Fund (PDF) and never returned. Abbu Issa fled Gaza in fear of his safety in 1999.

(The PDF has recently been renamed as the Palestinian Banking Corporation. Its directors have included the current Palestinian Minister of Finance, Mr Salim Fayyad, and Arafat private financial advisor, Mr Muhammed Rashid.)

Abu Issa returned to the Palestinian territories in February 2005. He has given an interview with Khaled Abu Toameh, defining his hopes and plans.

The observant reader will find Abu Issa's comments enlightening. As a Palestinian, he demonstrates conclusively the role of the international community in maintaining the financial and moral weaknesses of prominent statesmen and institutional structures - whether connected to the previous or current Palestinian government.

The biggest mistake they [the international community] made was to support a corrupt dictatorship instead of a free and democratic society, a society that thrives on law, order and economic development.

The future Palestine must be based on sound foundations, a democratic society and the rule of law. I think we can see a glimpse of hope. It's too early to tell, but I'm optimistic.

The details of this interview were released a few days after the London Conference, where donors were asked to give around $1.2 billion in aid towards the Palestinian economy. The EU has already pledged over EUR 250m.

Yet again, the FPC challenges governments and diplomats. Where are the efforts to identify and recover previous aid money, as well as local assets, which have disappeared into a myriad of corrupt machinations in Ramallah and Gaza?

Very much related to these questions are the assessments of the World Bank. Put simply: restoring confidence in the Palestinian capital markets is essential if there is to be economic recovery and end of the cycle of Palestinian poverty.

The leadership of the Palestinian Authority must be encouraged to either conclusively disprove Abu Issa's accusations, or immediately return his bank to him and his co-investors. Hopefully, if the new Palestinian regime can demonstrate openness and true reform, then foreign investment may follow, reducing Palestinian dependence on the western taxpayer's current generosity. We repeat here the full contents of the interview with Issam Abu Issa:

'Yasser Arafat stole my bank'


Mar. 4, 2005

Nearly six years after he fled to Qatar, Issam Abu Issa, chairman and founder of the Palestine International Bank, returned to Ramallah this week to challenge Yasser Arafat's decision to take control of his bank.

Abu Issa, a prominent Palestinian businessman with Qatari citizenship, met with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei and Finance Minister Salaam Fayad. It was his first visit to the PA-controlled areas since he was forced into exile in 1999 after Palestinian security forces tried to arrest him in the Gaza Strip.

Abu Issa found sanctuary in the Qatari Embassy in Gaza City, which was surrounded by PA policemen for several days. Following the intervention of Qatar's ruling family, Arafat agreed to let the banker leave the Gaza Strip.

In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Abu Issa, who says he has patched up his differences with the PA leadership, expressed hope that the international community would stop supporting corrupt and undemocratic regimes as they did with Arafat's authority for more than a decade.

He said he was also demanding that the PA launch an investigation into the whereabouts of the millions of dollars that Arafat and his aides stole from the bank. When Arafat seized the bank, he said, its total assets amounted to $105 million. Since the takeover, they have neither called for a shareholders' meeting nor disclosed the bank's balance sheet.

"When they seized the bank unlawfully, Arafat's security services harassed me," he recounted. "I fled to the Qatari mission in Gaza City. Arafat's men confiscated my private belongings, including my car, which Arafat took for himself.

"Only after Qatar threatened Arafat with financial sanctions and severing of diplomatic ties did he allow me to leave the Gaza Strip," he said.

Many Palestinians were surprised to see you this week in Ramallah after all that happened to you. Have you resolved your dispute with the PA?

I came here to meet with Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who had earlier welcomed me to come to the PA areas under the protection of the law and under his auspices to resolve the dispute over the bank, which has continued for almost five years.

Arafat and the PA accused you of financial wrongdoing and held you responsible for giving loans without proper guarantees. What's your reaction to the charges?

An investigation has been launched upon my request by the Palestinian Legislative Council last year that concluded that all actions taken against me and the bank by the PA were illegal. The council ruled unanimously that the presidential decree issued by Arafat to seize the bank was illegal and without any process of law.

What did they actually want from you? Were they only after your money?

They had 67 different and contradictory allegations. None of them was valid. Basically the whole dispute was about reforms. I was in a clash with the forces of corruption and gangsters in the PA. These forces teamed up and convinced Arafat that he should take over the bank. They told him it is totally legal.

Since my arrival from 1994 from Qatar to invest in the PA areas, I have been in dispute with many of Arafat's close associates due to the fact that we came from totally different backgrounds. As an international businessman I assumed that the newly established PA would consider the rule of law as a basis for its establishment.

And I definitely discovered that I was in the wrong place.

So why didn't you get up and leave back then?

Because I had already invested, with my shareholders, around $17m. We could never have imagined that things were going in the wrong direction instead of the right direction. I tried to lobby with all means in favor of a democratic and free economic environment.

And that was of course contradictory to the existing policy at that time, where dictatorship and gangsterism prevailed and was supported, unfortunately, by those who thought that a corrupt PA would be in the interest of Israel and peace. Of course I totally disagreed with this theory at that time.

What did Arafat do with the money he took?

He took the whole bank. We are now making an effort to have a kind of a settlement with Abu Mazen [Abbas] and the PA. The bank has continued to function. It has 1,300 shareholders, mostly prominent Palestinian and Arab businessmen.

Do you think the PA has changed under Abbas?

Yes, I believe the PA has started a new era and we hope it will succeed and be supported.

You've been very critical of the international community's policy vis-à-vis Arafat. What mistakes did they make?

The biggest mistake they made was to support a corrupt dictatorship instead of a free and democratic society, a society that thrives on law, order and economic development.

My advice to the international community and foreign investors is to go ahead and support the establishment of proper and solid institutions within the PA areas that could develop into a Palestinian state. The future Palestine must be based on sound foundations, a democratic society and the rule of law. I think we can see a glimpse of hope. It's too early to tell, but I'm optimistic.

You were recently sentenced by a PA court to a fine of $34m. for your alleged role in financial wrongdoing and mismanagement. Have you paid the fine?

This court decision was a fabrication, which has been canceled by the court of appeal. The cancellation was confirmed by the PA Supreme Court. The PLC blamed the PA leadership for all the illegal actions taken against the bank and put the responsibility for the wrongdoing on the governor of the Palestine Monetary Authority, Amin Haddad, and the Chairman of the General Control Authority, Jarrar al-Kidwa, who is a relative of Arafat.

They have also asked the PA to transfer the case against the two to the general prosecutor for further investigation.

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