How much is the PLO really worth?
by Ronen Bergman
Sunday, November 28, 1999 Haaretz
Ahmed Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, was and still is the head of the Samed (Sons of the Palestinian Martyrs - the economic arm of the PLO). Both Abu Ala and Muhammad Rashid, Arafat's senior economic adviser and confidant, refuse to disclose any information on the PLO's assets beyond the borders of the Palestinian Authority. The publication of these details would undoubtedly cause an uproar in the streets of Palestinian towns. How can it be, many would ask, that we are suffering here from economic hardship while the PLO is sitting on massive sums of frozen assets abroad, and not using them? In the middle of 1988 there was a breach of Samed's computer system, which connects the PLO's headquarters in Tunis with its economic representations abroad, and its financial records were revealed. These records showed enormous fiscal activity, which included many bank accounts in Europe, and a complex system of individuals and institutions involved in the transfer of funds. The bank accounts were spread out all over the world, including in Tunis and East Jerusalem, and were never registered officially in the name of the PLO, but were rather listed under the names of private individuals, including Abu Ala. Computer experts understood that they had not uncovered the whole picture. The accounts on the network documented only partial information on funds transferred under the heading "The chairman has transferred x thousand dollars to you."
The hackers who had broken into the PLO's computers closely followed the activities of the network, and were able to uncover the whole process by which the funds were transferred - from their beginning as a mysterious grant from somewhere, through several couriers to their final destination. The hackers discovered, among other things, allocations to "martyrs", which were paid through bank accounts in East Jerusalem. The purpose of each bank account was apparently determined by the activities of its bearer or courier. If, for example, an account was registered to a person with known connections to terrorist activities, the funds transferred through it were used for such activities, if the person was involved in the PLO's welfare projects, the money went to help widows and orphans.
The system carried records of the transfer of tens of millions of dollars, if not more. The experts who studied the data discovered that some of those employed in the transfer of funds made a habit of retaining a certain percentage of each transfer, and it is unclear whether this was done with or without permission. The breaching of the network did a lot to clear the deliberate smoke screen surrounding the PLO's financial apparatus. Apart from Arafat himself, only Abu Ala and Rashid know all of its secrets.
A report compiled recently by qualified assessors in Israel, and which was handed over to government officials, found that Samed continues to hold vast sums of money and assets around the world, despite the fact that it is an inactive organization in the advanced stages of atrophy. The heads of Samed, said the report, systematically desist from selling off these assets and transferring them to the PA territories to improve the poor economic situation there...
The PLO was an organization with massive economic power. For years it received billions of dollars from Saudi Arabia and from the sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. Those states also deducted 5 percent from the wages of all Palestinians who were working under their jurisdiction, and transferred those funds to the PLO's bank accounts in Switzerland and Spain, for the "Palestinian Liberation Tax Fund." This levy alone brought in about $50 million per year.
The economic branch of the research department in Israeli Military Intelligence estimates that throughout the 1970s and 1980s the PLO added some $5 million to its coffers every day. The organization had tremendous assets and many straw companies, which helped it acquire shares on European stock markets. The Kuwaitis, for example, aided the PLO in purchasing shares in companies such as Mercedes. The organization had great economic influence in France, Switzerland, Italy, Holland and Scandinavia.
In order to control its vast assets, the PLO set up Samed, which made investments for it. Samed's administration was highly classified and under Arafat's direct command. Arafat himself signed all the checks. The PLO was willing to reveal only the socialist-inspired aspect of Samed's activities. The organization published a newspaper called Samed al Ectsadi (The Economic Samed), which showed photographs of Palestinian women weaving and Palestinian men plowing fields in agricultural farms in Africa and Lebanon.
Samed had several administrative divisions, including offices for industry, trade and marketing, agriculture and agricultural produce, a research and publications department, and a department for the production of films and the dissemination of information. The latter initiated the production of several public relations films and propaganda films on the Palestinian struggle. At the end of the 1980s it invested millions of dollars to produce a feature-length film. The raw material was sent to a film lab in Rome for editing. One night, in July 1989, unknown persons broke into the lab and disposed of everything relating to the film.
Investments on Wall Street
It is hard to determine the real value and scope of the PLO's total assets. According to figures published in the world media, hundreds of millions of dollars of PLO money were transferred from Lebanon to Switzerland at the beginning of the Israel Defense Forces' siege of Beirut in 1982. As early as the 1970s, according to those reports, Arafat had already made huge investments on Wall Street, in London, and in several Arab banks, with the help of sources in the former Soviet Union, specifically the Moscow Narodny bank. The PLO had also made substantial investments in large industrial firms which traded on the stock exchanges of Frankfurt, Paris and Tokyo, and had purchased real estate in the upmarket Mayfair district of London.
These reports also say that the PLO is the controlling shareholder in the Monte Carlo radio station, and in other radio stations. He also owns, or did own, a string of newspapers, (one of which, Suat al Bilad, was edited by Muhammed Rashid during his revolutionary period). In addition, the PLO owns many buildings in Cyprus, Greece, France, Spain, Jerusalem and Lebanon, and has invested in a number of airlines in Africa.
In a report published at the end of 1996 in the French newspaper Le Figaro, it was alleged that by the beginning of the Gulf War, the PLO's cash reserves had reached more than $7 billion - an enormous sum that Arafat disbursed in numbered accounts in Zurich, Geneva and New York. The Israeli Military Intelligence estimates that the figures quoted by Le Figaro are inflated, but they agree that in the 1970s and 1980s the PLO was a very strong economic power.
According to various intelligence sources, the PLO was a partner in several airline companies, which also functioned as a screen for its secret activities. The PLO was a partner in the establishment of the airline of the Maldives and was later the owner of the Guinea Bissau airline, then headed by Faiz Zaidan, who is now in charge of civil aviation for the Palestinian Authority. Samed acquired a duty-free shop in the international airport in Tanzania. The PLO's representative in Zimbabwe, Ali Halima, said that it was a purely economic investment, and that during the same period, Samed bought several other stores in Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
In 1991, when the Persian Gulf states stopped supporting the PLO and expelled all the Palestinian workers employed there following Arafat's alignment with Saddam Hussein, the PLO reached the brink of bankruptcy. It is well-known that some of Samed's assets were sold during that period to finance the general operations of the PLO, but it is unclear what portion of these assets was liquidated. Three years ago, the comptroller's committee of the American congress carried out a secret investigation of this matter, and even took testimony from experts in Israel. To this day the report of that investigation has not been published. It is known, however, that the investigators reached an unequivocal conclusion regarding everything connected with the extent of the PLO's assets abroad
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