November/December 1993, Page 48

Special Report

Arafat-Rabin Agreement Comes at Depths of PLO Financial Crisis

By Mary C. Cook

Reema, ready to deliver her third child any day, heaves her unaccustomed bulk out of her chair and makes her way into what was once Editor-in-Chief Hanna Siniora's office. Her husband, Ali, sits on a desk restlessly banging his legs against its side. Abu Jamil, a three-day growth of beard on his thin face, sits in a white plastic chair, his long legs crossed, a look of total dejection on his face.

All journalists with the now-closed Al-Fajr Arabic newspaper, they appear each morning at its administrative offices to wait for the severance pay they have coming. After many years of employment in the Fatah-backed publication, this can amount to thousands of dollars for some of the 40 former Al-Fajr employees. And now it is back-to-school time, when money is needed for the children's school fees and new school clothes, not to mention rent and food and, in Reema and Ali's case, a new baby.

After the display of PLO support for Saddam Hussain during the Gulf war, the Gulf countries stopped sending the PLO the financial help that had sustained it throughout its struggle. Therefore, where it previously sent $30 million a month to the occupied territories, the PLO's remittances had dropped to only $7 million a month by the time it signed its agreement with Israel's Labor government. As a result, Palestinian employees had to tighten their belts yet another notch while the PLO instituted an austerity program.

The PLO had begun to sell $125 million in prime real estate in Europe, Asia and Africa to cover unpaid salaries, pensions and welfare benefits, according to Abbas Zaki, a member of Fatah's Central Committee. The PLO hopes to free up $50 million annually by selling these properties, cutting down on expenses, and cracking down on extravagance by its own officers.

Al-Fajr newspaper was only one of many institutions hit by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat's forced austerity measures. Like its counterpart, As-Sha'ab newspaper closed its doors this past February. It was the first of several periodicals and press agencies in the occupied territories which, along with research centers and educational institutions, lost PLO financial backing. According to sources within the PLO, the previous annual budget for the information department had been cut from $12 million to $2 million annually.

The Palestinian school system, at all levels, also found itself in the worst financial circumstances it had experienced since the Gulf war. In an attempt to cope with the PLO's reduction in funds to the Palestinian Council for Higher Education, Bir Zeit University raised its tuition fees by 25 percent. This set off a student strike and forced a number of students to re-think their plans for a higher education.

The Council appealed to UNESCO for emergency support for Palestinian universities and, according to Yousef Dajani, assistant to the secretary-general of the Council, has requested funds from Saudi Arabia. It is planning to send a delegation made up of executive committee members, including several university presidents, to Saudi Arabia to present its case.

According to Hebron University spokesman Nabil Abu Znaid, the cut-off in Fatah backing forced that institution to reduce university salaries in 1991 until April 1993, when they stopped totally.

Palestinian schools at the elementary and high school levels also are experiencing a severe financial crises. The 16 Ashaab schools, which are independent of the Israeli school system and have been supported by the PLO since 1988, experienced some financial problems during 1991 and 1992. Since 1993, instructors have received only 5 percent of their salaries.

The Islamic Higher Council of Jerusalem states that it needs 1 million Jordanian diners ($1.5 million) annually to keep its schools running. Educators fear that unless the necessary funds are found, the Israeli government may take them over. In an effort to solve the crisis, the Islamic Higher Council has appealed to King Hussein of Jordan as well as to the PLO to save the Arab schools in Jerusalem.

The Expenses of Self-Rule

Rumors also are rampant in the occupied territories concerning the amount of money Yasser Arafat is withdrawing from his secret accounts with the intention of using them to set up an administrative apparatus in Gaza and Jericho. According to DFLP leader Nayef Hawatmeh, who opposes the agreement, Arafat intends to transfer $800 million to cover the expenses of self-rule.

Plans also are underway by several parties to contribute funds to bolster the economy of the new state. At the same time, two Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, already have joined the U. S., Japan and European countries to pledge funds at an Oct. 1 meeting in Washington, DC to rebuild the economies of Gaza and Jericho.

While these facts and figures can be tripped of the tongues of most Palestinians, even those in the tiniest villages, thousands of people are unemployed or have not been paid in months due to the cutbacks of recent years. Meanwhile, plans are underway for a Palestinian investors' conference in East Jerusalem this fall. An anticipated 900 Palestinian businessmen from the Diaspora will be attending the conference to explore opportunities to help establish a sound Palestinian economic infrastructure.

Muhammad Shitayeh, one of the conference organizers, says that such a move will help develop links to other Arab countries and promote Palestinian products for export. By investing in the Palestinian economy, the organizers hope that Israeli investors will be prevented from controlling the still-developing economy.

In the meantime, as the PLO straightens out its finances and waits for funds from outside forces to arrive in the territories, people like Reema, Ali and Abu Jamil are borrowing money to lead even a hand-to-mouth existence. Their hope is that the new government will find its footing soon, and that their past services and present needs will be remembered.

 

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