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Channel 10 invites Abbas to address corruption allegations

Feb. 11, 2010 7:46 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 13, 2010 11:42 A.M.)
Jerusalem – Ma'an – President Mahmoud Abbas has a standing invitation to appear on Israel's Channel 10 to challenge allegations several of his senior aides have for years fleeced international aid to the Palestinian Authority, a top Israeli journalist said on Wednesday.

"We have been trying to interview you onscreen, yet you refuse," said Zvi Yehezkeli, the head of Channel 10's Arabic desk. "You should have agreed, because Israeli audiences don't know who Abu Mazen is, whether he fights corruption or not."

Issuing his appeal via an interview with Ma'an, Yehezkeli said that "the Palestinian president should listen to the Israeli media and know what is being said about him and the PA. This is important for him and for us."

The news network, among Israel's largest, last week reported that it received approximately 400 documents and videotapes that purportedly reveal rampant corruption within the PA. Much of the evidence was provided by Fahmi Shabana, the former head of the PA's anti-corruption department.

Abbas was out of the country on Wednesday, but a senior aide, At-Tayyib Abdul Rahim, dismissed the reports, saying he was "not surprised by the frantic campaign by Israeli media outlets" to put pressure on the Ramallah-based president due to his refusal to re-start talks with Israel absent a settlement freeze.

The accusations amount to a smear campaign through the "re-telling of faded lies and stories," he added.

Nevertheless, hours later Channel 10 broadcast video footage of a PA sting operation that apparently shows Rafik Al-Husseini, the head of Abbas' office, propositioning a job applicant for sex in a Ramallah hotel room. The footage was provided by Shabana, who said he initiated the sting when the applicant informed PA intelligence of Al-Husseini's alleged misuse of his seniority in the US-backed government.

During his interview with Ma'an, Yehezkeli denied accusations that the network paid Shabana, who alleges that Al-Husseini and other PA officials offered massive sums of money to make the videotape go away.

The Israeli journalist, a Jewish Kurd originally from Iraq, highlighted that the Israeli daily Maariv's Amit Cohen broke the story six months earlier, and in light of the new documents and video, had been trying to get the PA or Abbas to comment for over a week.

"I asked to meet with the director of President Abbas' office on Monday [to confirm or deny the allegations himself], but there was no comment," Yehezkeli says, so "Fahmi Shabana presented the needed documents, names, and photos to the Israeli media."

The PA has not taken the allegations sitting down, however, pressing forward on an old arrest warrant for Shabana, a "low-level officer" who was charged with collaboration and dismissed for the leak as well as "several other immoral and dishonest offenses."

Abdul Rahim said the officer was involved in illegal land sales to Israel, the very issue he was asked to investigate. Shabana "was appointed by the Palestinian general intelligence service to collect information about those land deals, and the people involved in them from Jerusalem," he said, insisting that Shabana "overstepped his authority and committed blackmail."

When officers discovered Shabban's actions, Abdul Rahim said, Abbas "gave directives to refer him to the general prosecution because some of the people involved in the suspected land deals fled to Israel, and others left the country. The PA exerted efforts to detain them with the help of Interpol, with some success, and wanted individuals were returned to the PA."

The issue of the intelligence officer was raised by the PA on 8 June 2008, when Abdul Rahim said he first requested an arrest warrant. The warrant is still in effect, with Shabana claiming Israeli officials put him under house arrest at the PA's request.

Both Israel and the PA deny that Israeli authorities were acting on behalf of the PA. According to Israel, in fact, Shabana was arrested for ties to the PA, which are illegal for a Jerusalem resident like himself to maintain.

Yehezkeli, the journalist, says the issue at hand is not government corruption in and of itself, but Ramallah's attitude of impunity in addressing it. He noted that Israel has faced its share of embarrassing scandals, including two that separately brought down the country's most recent president and prime minister.

"Even the Hamas government isn't immune from corruption, in terms of smuggling, an issue Israeli networks are aware of and with which they follow up," Yehezkeli said.

Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh "doesn't live in Ash-Shati refugee camp, and he doesn't drive a modest car. They only talk about leading ascetic lives, and forget about the eight million euros smuggled through Egypt's borders going to their officials," he added.

The journalist pointed out, however, that Shabana had never claimed Abbas or caretaker Prime Minister Salam Fayyad were involved in the scandals, but urged both to act with austerity in the face of serious corruption charges. Fayyad, a former World Bank economist, runs an administration widely applauded for its transparency, "yet he hasn't gotten rid of corrupt officials," Yehezkeli said.

In the meantime, Yehezkeli vowed that Channel 10 would continue airing hundreds of the documents and other materials implicating senior Palestinian officials until the PA takes action.
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