JERUSALEM – In his four decades as Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat (search) has run a murky financial empire that includes far-flung PLO (search) investments in airlines, banana plantations and high-tech companies, and money hidden in bank accounts across the globe.
Jaweed al-Ghussein (search), a former PLO finance minister, told The Associated Press it was worth $3 billion to $5 billion when he quit in 1996. No one will say how much it's worth now — some estimates say as little as a few million. But as 75-year-old Arafat fights for life in a hospital near Paris, Palestinians fear that what's left will disappear or be pocketed by Arafat cronies.
"It's the money of the Palestinian people," said Palestinian legislator Hassan Khreishe, adding that he would urge a parliamentary investigation.
That could prove difficult.
Arafat has long resisted proper accounting for the funds, which include Arab payments to the PLO in the 1970s and 1980s, and Western aid to his self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority, after interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s.
Arafat lived frugally, but needed large sums to maintain loyalties. He would register investments and bank accounts in the names of loyalists, both to buy their support and protect the holdings from scrutiny and seizure, said al-Ghussein.
Only Arafat had the full picture, he said, and it's not clear whether he left a will or financial records.
Arafat never divulged his finances. Pressed at a February meeting with leaders of his Fatah movement, he cut them short, saying "there are no assets," according to one participant.
Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's financial adviser, denied his boss was rich.
"Arafat has no personal property in any part in the world," he told Al-Arabiya television on Sunday. "He doesn't even have a tent, a house, an orchard or any account that we can call personal in the name of Yasser Arafat."
However, Forbes magazine ranked him No. 6 on its 2003 list of the richest "kings, queens and despots," estimating he was worth at least $300 million. Shalom Harari, a former top Israeli intelligence official, said Arafat may have stashed away up to $700 million, part of it for an emergency such as a new exile, especially with Israel threatening to expel him.
Two names frequently come up in connection with Arafat's money — Rashid and Arafat's wife, Suha.
In the past 10 years, Rashid has handled hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian Authority revenue Arafat diverted from the treasury — though a reformist finance minister, Salam Fayyad, said the money was invested on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and has since been restored to public control.
Suha Arafat, Arafat's wife of 13 years and mother of his daughter, lives in Paris and has received monthly payments of $100,000 from the Palestinian coffers, according to a senior official in Arafat's office. This year, French prosecutors launched a money-laundering probe into transfers of $11.4 million into her accounts. She has refused to talk to reporters about Palestinian finances.
Al-Ghussein, speaking by telephone from London, said the big money from the Arab world started flowing in 1979. For a decade, the PLO received about $200 million a year, $85 million of it from Saudi Arabia, he said.
Al-Ghussein, who headed the Palestinian National Fund, the PLO treasury, said during that period, he would hand Arafat a check for $10.25 million every month from the PLO budget, ostensibly for payments to PLO fighters and families of those killed in battle. He said Arafat refused to account for his spending, citing national security.
Much of the Arab money dried up after Arafat infuriated his patrons in 1990 by siding with Saddam Hussein during Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But Saddam gave Arafat $150 million in three payments, Al-Ghussein said.
"It was handed to Arafat personally," said al-Ghussein, who left his job in 1996 after falling out with Arafat. In 2000, a court in the United Arab Emirates, where al-Ghussein lived at the time, cleared him of stealing $6.5 million in Palestinian Authority funds.
The PLO investments are said to have ranged from an airline in the Maldives to a Greek shipping company, banana plantations, a diamond mine in Africa and real estate throughout the Arab world.
The holdings were registered in the names of dozens of Arafat loyalists, according to a retired PLO financier in Gaza and to a Palestinian economist in the West Bank who began following the money trail at the request of some Fatah officials this year. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.
A senior Palestinian Authority official with detailed knowledge of financial transactions said much of the money has been lost. Some of the companies went bankrupt. In other cases, Arafat cronies absconded with the cash. Some frontmen for PLO investments died, and the holdings passed to their families.
Others insisted the PLO still has substantial assets.
Al-Ghussein said that when he left office the money was in "numerous accounts" worldwide, but he declined to elaborate.
The West Bank economist estimated the organization had $2.5 billion to $4 billion in assets and cash.
A new source of income opened for Arafat after he established limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank and Gaza.
The international community, protective of the fledgling peace effort with Israel, donated more than $6.5 billion to the Palestinian Authority from 1994 to 2003, in the beginning with few questions asked.
Last year the International Monetary Fund reported $900 million in Palestinian Authority income never reached the treasury during the first six years of self-rule. The money, including Israeli tax rebates and revenue from monopolies on cigarettes, fuel and cement, instead went into a Tel Aviv account controlled by Arafat.
Harari, the former intelligence official, said the Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was offended by the arrangement but was told by his advisers that Arafat needed a slush fund to suppress opposition to peace deals with Israel.
International aid officials declined to discuss PLO finances, saying they were only concerned with the Palestinian Authority's bookkeeping. Karim Nashashibi, the IMF representative in the Palestinian areas, said the $900 million has been restored to the treasury under Fayyad, who has won international praise for his work.
In the last three years, Fayyad sharply curtailed Arafat's spending powers, cutting the budget for the "president's office" from $100 million in 2002 to $43 million this year.