The top finance official on Friday disclosed the Palestinian Authority had more than $600 million in liquid assets but denied the organization had secret funds. Finance Minister Salam Fayad also said the authority had given no money to groups accused by Israel and the United States of terrorism. In an interview with The Associated Press, Fayad gave a detailed accounting of the Palestinian Authority’s financial assets, held locally and internationally. Among the most valuable were Orascom Telecom Algeria, valued at $90 million, and the Jordan Mobile Telecommunications Company, valued at more than $66 million. “Reform is not very easy in the best of circumstances,” said Fayad, who in recent months has won praise from Palestinians and Israeli and American officials for making the Palestinian Authority’s murky finances more transparent. An aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Rannan Gissin, refused to comment on the disclosure, saying it would be counterproductive. Fayad, 50, refused to comment on speculation that he is a candidate for a new position of prime minister, which Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under international pressure, has said he would create and fill in the coming weeks. An internationally respected former World Bank official, Fayad was appointed finance minister by Arafat in a Cabinet reshuffle forced on the Palestinian leader last June after complaints about his corrupt administration and Israeli charges that government funds were being funneled to terror groups. Fayad said no money had gone to fund terrorist activity. “It is really not too hard to do the accounting and to show that what ever limited resources we had … were funding basic government functions,” he said. U.S. and European governments have complained for years that the Palestinian financial structure is not transparent and does not allow donors to follow their money through the Palestinian system to the projects for which it was intended. Also, there have been consistent charges that Palestinian officials rake off large sums amounts for themselves. In a special annual issue of Forbes Magazine, Arafat was reported to control $300 million, making him among one of the richest in its category of “Kings, Queens and Despots.”
Fayad said Arafat’s money belongs to the Palestinian people and would be investigated as such. “This is not his money,” he said. “This is the Palestinian Authority money and it is being managed as such.” Fayad has promised to end the use of cash in government transactions, particularly in the payment of wages to Palestinian security forces, and for the first time to integrate the separate and shadowy defense budget into the overall public accounts. He also vows to fight the perception held by many Palestinians that there is widespread corruption in the government. “It’s a very important step. The object is to have a system judged to be good and right by our own people. If we succeed on that front it should be good for the rest of the world.” After fighting erupted in September 2000, Israel held up transfer of tax funds it collected for the Palestinian Authority, saying that the money could be used to finance terror attacks. It recently began releasing some taxes after officials met with Fayad.
By Ibrahim Hazboun