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Palestinian Public Has a New Foe

Mideast: Senior officials' lifestyles and leadership are fueling anger. Arafat is now openly criticized.


JERICHO, West Bank — Tucked away on a quiet side street, the sand-colored mansion built two years ago by Ahmed Korei, speaker of the Palestinian legislature, was meant to be a haven for the busy politician.

Instead, the 12-room home--with its swimming pool, lush landscaping, privacy wall and guard tower--became an embarrassing liability. Why, Palestinians began to ask publicly, were senior officials living in luxury while the continuing fight with Israel drove their people deeper into poverty?

Two months ago, Korei, an architect of the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, abandoned the Jericho home. He dedicated it, according to the plaque tacked onto the perimeter wall, to Samed Institute, Workshops of the Children of the Martyrs.

Korei, better known as Abu Alaa, is abroad recovering from a heart attack and could not be reached for comment. But a lone guard at the house told a visiting reporter that the building will be remodeled as a vocational school for children of men killed fighting Israel.

Korei's gesture is testimony to the alarm among senior Palestinian officials at the seething anger of a people who are beginning to blame their leaders' alleged corruption and incompetence, and not just Israeli measures, for their misery.

So great is the people's wrath toward their leaders that some Palestinian officials fear the eruption of a full-blown rebellion that would sweep aside Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the revolutionaries who came with him from exile in 1994 to build a Palestinian state. Some even fear internal assassinations.

No one has produced hard evidence linking any senior Palestinian official directly to corrupt practices. In fact, an investigator for the World Bank said recently that he found the levels of corruption within the Palestinian Authority "no worse than that of other Third World nations."

But the lavish lifestyle of senior officials and the mansions built by Korei, senior negotiator Mahmoud Abbas, security chief Mohammed Dahlan, Social Affairs Minister Intisar Wazir and others, are proof enough for many Palestinians that their leaders have enriched their cronies and lined their pockets with money intended for the public coffers.

Many Palestinians now accept as fact allegations that officials take kickbacks and bribes from contractors and have misappropriated funds from Arab states meant to rebuild homes and businesses destroyed by the Israeli army.

"We are poor, we are critical, we are angry, and also we have a cause," said Ziad abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and academic. "This is a small society, and cases of corruption are highly visible. People believe that we are supposed to be clean, because we are fighting for our rights. So, objectively speaking, in relative terms, our corruption may be less than people think, but it doesn't matter."

Palestinians, Abu Amr said, are fed up with seeing "an official whose salary is $1,000 a month who buys property worth millions. There was a lot of stealing, extortion, bribery. We had a group of people who became wealthy by illegitimate means."

"Where have the millions gone?" shouted thousands of unemployed workers who poured into the streets of Gaza City in a demonstration against the Palestinian Authority this month. It was a not-so-subtle question about how millions of dollars in aid from Arab countries and the international community have been spent by the authority since fighting erupted in September 2000.

"Soon, the situation will become so dangerous that people will start accusing everybody, including people like me, of being the symbol of destruction, of defeat," said Abbas Zaki, a Palestinian legislator from the West Bank city of Hebron and veteran leader in Arafat's Fatah movement.

This generation of leaders, Palestinian critics charge, has failed dismally both at making peace and at making war.

"For the people, they're finished," said Salah Abdul Shafi, a Gazan economist. "People now even talk about Arafat, and this is completely new. From 1994 until this intifada, they only whispered about him. Now they openly criticize him."

Abdul Shafi said he worries that unless Arafat institutes the top-to-bottom reforms he has promised, "there will be a wave of internal assassinations." Palestinian ministers, the economist noted, no longer attend the funerals of Palestinians killed in clashes with Israeli troops, "because they are afraid of the people."

Palestinian officials offer little defense against the charges of corruption and mismanagement. Some publicly acknowledge that corruption has been endemic, and now enthusiastically embrace the cause of reform. Some have left government and slipped away from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the face of growing unrest.

Nabil Amr, the former minister for parliamentary affairs who quit the Cabinet in April saying he believed that his move would spark reforms, said he left because he was disgusted by the conduct of senior officials.

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