Palestinians await ruling on cement corruption charges

The story told by the report now sitting on the desk of the Palestinian attorney general is a detailed account of how companies owned by well-heeled Palestinian families have benefited from positions of power and the insidious characteristics of the expanding Israeli occupation.

These people “are making money at the expense of the country,” says Legislative Council Member Hasan Khreisheh, from Tulkarem. “If some average laborer unable to eat in these difficult times had gone to work on the wall [Israel is building in the West Bank], we would give him a hard time. He would be a spy, and all of his family castigated, and the security agencies would have arrested him. But here we are talking about people who have made millions…and no one is talking.”

According to the report authored by Legislative Council members Khreisheh, Saadi Krunz and Jamal Shati, three companies, the Yusef Baraka Company for Trade (owned by Jamal Baraka), the Intisar Baraka Company for Trade, and the Tarifi Ready-Made Cement company, allegedly participated in transferring into the Israeli market cement sold by Egypt at lower prices for Palestinians. From September 2003 to March 2004, Egyptian companies sold 420,000 tons of cement to these Palestinian companies at $22 a ton, a discounted price intended to help the impoverished Palestinian people, the report says. Of that amount, 33,000 tons were sold in the Palestinian market. The rest, alleges the report, was transported by trucks owned by these companies to Israel after the trucks passed the Al Oujeh crossing between Egypt and Israel. This account is backed by a videotape provided to the Legislative Council by the Egyptian government.

While the report draws no conclusions about the profit margin allegedly garnered by the Palestinian companies, the current price of cement in the Palestinian territories hovers around $100 a ton.

Further, the report accuses the Ministry of National Economy of facilitating the illegal transfer by not checking the destination of the cement, and continuing to provide permits to these companies. The permits granted had open-ended dates or dates that could be easily changed, which also facilitated the illegal transfer, the report alleges.

“We don’t think it was warranted to put that much blame on the ministry,” responds National Economy Minister Maher al Masri. He says that the report contains several errors, the most important of which is that the ministry’s accounting of the licenses that were given for the cement during this period comes to much lower than 420,000 tons. Regarding the ministry’s practice of dating, Masri says that all permits are validated by Israeli computers and are therefore written in a specific format.

But Masri does not challenge the central tenets of the report. In fact, he says that the ministry has held a disciplinary session for two employees on this matter, in which one was given a warning. The disciplinary committee was formed, he says, in the last two or three months.

According to documents obtained by the Legislative Council, the Palestinian Authority had suspicions of impropriety as early as November 9, 2003, when the Palestinian Authority Comptroller sent a letter to Palestinian President Yasser Arafat saying that import licenses for 20,000 tons of cement, benefiting the Tarifi company, had been signed by Minister Maher Masri. It was the comptroller’s contention that this cement was destined for construction of the wall that Israel is building through the West Bank. “We couldn’t come to that conclusion,” says Khreisheh, “but he did.”

Minister of Civil Affairs, Jamil Tarifi, whose family owns the Tarifi Ready-Made Cement Company, says that he personally has had no connection to the company since 1990. Still, he defends the company, saying that according to its books, it imported 8,600 tons of cement from Egypt during that period, half of which were used in its own factories and the rest of which were sold to Arab companies.

Further, he argues that the report is illogical. “A country that produces seven or eight million tons of cement a year, and only uses a million or a million and a half tons has no shortage.” In other words, Israel has no reason to import cement from Egypt.

While this recent report restricts allegations to the Tarifi Ready-Made Cement Company, in 1998, the first Legislative Council report on corruption named Tarifi himself, accusing him of manipulating his power as civil affairs minister to facilitate a monopoly on cement. When Tarifi is asked why his family name repeatedly comes up in reports on corruption in the Palestinian areas, he answers, “There are people who want to make problems for Tarifi [the family]- or they want to make problems for Egypt.”

Khreisheh, however, has only thanks for Egypt, which he says has acted to stop the trade in cement. “We would have liked if the situation was stopped from our side, not from theirs,” he remarks. The Legislative Council initiated its investigation after Egyptian journalists, trying to dig up normalization contracts between Israel and Egypt, stumbled upon the business ties between German Jew Zeev Plinsky, Egyptian cement companies and Palestinian cement companies.

As one of the report’s three main authors, Khreisheh is calling for no less than the resignation of the Palestinian cabinet. While this is only the latest effort in a long string of attempts to enforce Palestinian Authority accountability, Khreisheh believes the cement charges carry a great deal of weight. He notes that the report was vetted by 40 members of the 86-seat Legislative Council. While other interventions were softened by the control wielded by Fateh, Arafat’s faction, in the Council, Khreisheh believes that Fateh’s ranks are now divided by a young guard that will support pressuring the government.

In support of the report, Palestinian political factions have been working to gather signatures from the public. Two activists from the Palestinian People’s Party who greet Khreisheh, himself an independent, claim that their faction collected 20,000 signatures in one district. Demonstrations have been held in Tulkarem and Bethlehem, and last Friday, Gaza imams called on listeners to support the Legislative Council report.

“I believe that no one minister can work alone; they work together as a team,” says Khreisheh. “They should all hold responsibility.”