RAMALLAH, West Bank — A two-year-old Palestinian court charged with combating corruption handed down its first major conviction this month, ruling that a man widely considered a pretty big fish — the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s former economic adviser — had embezzled millions of dollars.
Some analysts praised the verdict, calling it a positive step for a Palestinian system long plagued by graft. But as the case escalated this week into an ugly public spat between the convicted embezzler, Mohammed Rashid, and the dominant Fatah political party, it has also raised questions about whether the Palestinian Authority is using its nascent anti-corruption drive to suppress critics.
It is hard to find anyone here who thinks Rashid, a murky figure who was swiftly convicted in absentia, has clean hands. But Rashid has spent most of the past decade outside the Palestinian territories, and he is allied with a key adversary of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the former Gaza Strip security chief Mohammed Dahlan. Last month, there was an international outcry after Palestinian authorities sought to ban Web sites linked to the two — one of which Rashid has used to disparage Abbas — and detained critical journalists and bloggers.
“It looks like a reaction to a political dispute, not a continuous fight against corruption. Why Mohammed Rashid now?” said Hani al-Masri of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies. “The act would be more powerful if it were taken against someone inside the political system.”
In recent days, Rashid has accused Abbas of score-settling, and he has made unsubstantiated allegations that Abbas, whom he calls the “Sultan of Ramallah,” holds millions of dollars in slush funds, some of it from donor aid. The Fatah Central Committee, in a statement, countered that Rashid is “one of the models of treachery” it sees plotting against Abbas, “who represents the will of the Palestinian people and has become a symbol of steadfastness in the face of pressures and conspiracies.” Abbas has not commented on the matter.
Analysts said the dispute is unlikely to damage Abbas, whose popularity has sagged as his efforts to win Palestinian statehood stagnate but who retains strong support among Western backers. But they said it could further fuel public disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority. One recent survey indicated that a majority of Palestinians think the largely foreign-funded body is plagued by corruption and is not serious about stopping it.
“There is still a lot of favoritism and patronage and off-the-books payments,” said Mouin Rabbani, a Jordan-based senior fellow with the Institute for Palestine Studies, who argued that foreign supporters of the Palestinian Authority have often turned a blind eye to such activity.
Anti-graft activists say the problem has diminished since the 2004 death of Arafat, whose administration was notoriously corrupt and opaque. Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have won plaudits from international financial institutions for increasing transparency in public spending.