Politics & Policy

Mixed Signals

A good guy gets turned away.

On April 1, following a lengthy probe, the European Union concluded that funds it provided to the Palestinian Authority between 2000 and 2002 had not been used to finance terrorist attacks against Israel. The ruling was immediately criticized by a number of European lawmakers as an undeserved vindication of PA chairman Yasser Arafat, and rightly so.

The latest evidence of Arafat’s long-running financial support for Palestinian terrorism came last week, when reports surfaced that Raad Mansur, a former high-ranking member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade (the military wing of Arafat’s Fatah movement) had confessed to Israeli security officials that Arafat supplied him with funds that were used to buy weapons and carry out attacks on Israeli targets in the West Bank.

Whether these funds came from the European Union–the PA’s largest donor–is difficult to say. But it is clear that Arafat continues to use foreign aid to finance and direct terrorist activities against Israel. The money certainly isn’t reaching its intended target: the Palestinian people, who, despite receiving over $4 billion in international aid since the Oslo Accords of 1993, continue to live in a perpetual state of poverty. Indeed, 60 percent of the annual Palestinian budget comes from foreign aid, millions of which Arafat stashes away in secret bank accounts.

To shed greater light on Arafat’s corrupt stewardship of the PA, in February, U.S. congressman Spencer Bacchus (R., Ala.) and the House Financial Services Committee invited several individuals familiar with the inner workings of the Palestinian banking system to take part in a hearing on corruption and terrorist financing within the Palestinian Authority.

Among those scheduled to testify was Issam Abu Issa, a Palestinian businessman and pro-democracy activist who recently filed a $120 million lawsuit against Arafat and the PA in a Qatari court for their illegal seizure of the Palestine International Bank (PIB). In 1999, the PIB, which Abu Issa himself had founded only a few years before, was first confiscated and then “nationalized” by Arafat. Soon after, Abu Issa–his life threatened by the PA–was forced to flee to Qatar, where he still lives today.

Given this experience, it is quite possible that, as Meyrav Wurmser, the director of Middle East studies at Washington’s Hudson Institute, says, “Nobody knows more about Palestinian financial corruption than Issam Abu Issa.”

Which makes the events that transpired during Abu Issa’s recent trip to the U.S. to testify about Arafat and the PA all the more puzzling.

Upon Abu Issa’s arrival at New York’s Kennedy Airport, he was detained for several hours by agents from the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who he says accused him of laundering $6 million from the PIB on behalf of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Abu Issa says that, after being questioned extensively about his relationship with Arafat and supposed links to Islamic Jihad, he was barred from entering the United States. The congressional hearings, in turn, were cancelled due to what the Treasury Department deemed “logistical problems.”

“The story is both baseless and fabricated,” says Abu Issa, who is seeking an appointment with the U.S. ambassador in Qatar to discuss his detainment. “Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t believe in Islamic Jihad’s ideology. In fact, I have spoken out against it several times.”

Abu Issa, who owns a real-estate company in California, says that prior to the episode at Kennedy Airport, he had traveled on his Qatari passport through New York eight times since 1999 without incident. In the past two years, he has made numerous appearances at both the Hudson Institute and the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, speaking about democratic reform in the Middle East, specifically within the Palestinian Authority. Wurmser believes these appearances may have led to Abu Issa’s troubles at Kennedy Airport.

“What happened to Issam Abu Issa is very simple,” she says. “Arafat and the Palestinian Authority did not want him to come to the U.S. and testify because they were leery of his connections to neoconservatives here. I think that at the same time we were working with him in Washington, (Palestinian Finance Minister) Salam Fayyad was giving false information about him to someone in the State Department. And the State Department was all too happy to oblige.”

Wurmser says that the detainment of a true reformer like Abu Issa only raises more questions about Fayyad, whom the U.S. continues to promote as a moderate despite his close allegiance to Arafat.

“Those who were capable of convincing the State Department about Abu Issa’s links to terrorism were probably able to have their cake and eat it, too,” says Uzrad Lew, a businessman and former senior Israeli intelligence official who was scheduled to testify along with Abu Issa. “They most likely did transfer international aid funds to Islamic Jihad and then convinced the State Department that someone else was to blame. If the U.S. really thought that Abu Issa had given money to Islamic Jihad, they certainly would have never let him leave the country.”

Considering that President Bush has decried the “economic stagnation” and “official corruption” fostered by the Palestinian Authority, and called for new Palestinian leadership, turning away Abu Issa appears to be a missed opportunity for the U.S.

“There are many Palestinian reformers,” says Abu Issa. “But the U.S. gives them mixed signals. Are they for Arafat or against Arafat? What they did to me sends the wrong message.”

Bringing democracy to the Middle East is a complex and often confusing task. For the U.S, rejecting genuine Arab and Muslim reformers only makes things that much more difficult.

Nir Boms is a fellow at the Council of Democracy and Tolerance and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Erick Stakelbeck is head writer for the Investigative Project.

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