When Yasser Arafat is buried, he will take with him one of the enduring secrets of the Palestinian regime — the whereabouts of a missing fortune in ill-gotten public funds. Ranked sixth on Forbes magazine’s 2003 list of “the richest kings, queens and despots,” with an estimated private coffer of at least $300 million, Arafat never divulged his finances during decades as a terrorist chieftain and later as Palestinian Authority president.
U.S. accountants commissioned by the Palestinian Authority, where Finance Minister Salem Fayyad has garnered global praise for instituting reform, found that part of Arafat’s personal wealth was in a secret portfolio worth close to $1 billion.
Arafat was declared dead of organ failure in a French hospital Thursday after a week that included wrangling between his wife, Suha, and his financial adviser, Mohammed Rashid. According to Palestinian sources, one dispute was over the fortune’s fate.
“The president is not known to have left a will, let alone all the details on where the money is kept,” one Palestinian source said told JTA. “So now it’s a free-for-all on getting the bank information.”
Yet Rashid has been adamant in defending Arafat’s good name.
“If this money does exist, let the Israelis and Americans find it,” he told Israel’s Yediot Achronot newspaper. “It is impossible these days to hide those kind of sums anywhere in the world.”
For ordinary Palestinians, venting ire at the unseemly behavior of Suha Arafat was the limit of public censure, given the gravity of losing their “national father.”
There also was the fact that, while Suha lived lavishly in Paris on a reported monthly allowance of $100,000, her husband led an ascetic existence locked away in his ruined Ramallah headquarters — hardly the picture of high-roller corruption.
But with poverty deepening in the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid the 4-year-old intifada, Arafat’s successors may find themselves at pains to explain the missing cash, much of which was donated by Arab states and the European Union.
“It’s the money of the Palestinian people,” Palestinian lawmaker Hassan Khreishe told The Associated Press, adding that he would urge a parliamentary investigation.
Arafat was believed to have used some of the money to buy loyalty and to finance the activities of terrorist groups under the umbrella of his Fatah movement.
French officials launched a probe earlier this year into the alleged transfer of $11.5 million from Swiss bank accounts to Suha Arafat. She denied any wrongdoing.
In 2003, the International Monetary Fund found that from 1995 to 2000, $900 million had been “diverted” from the Palestinian budget to an account controlled by Arafat.
But the IMF said most of that money was invested in Palestinian assets and Fayyad had assumed public control of it.
Swiss investment adviser Jean-Claude Robard told Al-Jazeera satellite television earlier this month that Arafat had bank accounts in Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands.
The AP cited financial sources as saying that Arafat’s PLO also owned an airline in the Maldives, a Greek shipping company, banana plantations, an African diamond mine and real estate throughout the Middle East.
Israeli newspapers said Arafat also has an account in Tel Aviv, where Israel deposited tax and customs revenues collected on Palestinian salaries and goods under the Oslo accords.
According to Yediot Achronot, Israel put over $500 million into that account, before freezing it when the intifada erupted.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.