PA criticised as Covid relief fund report finds corruption

PA facing fresh criticism after report exposed Covid social relief corruption
5 min read
West Bank
14 October, 2021
A Palestinian official report raised controversy after exposing corruption in the handling of the PA's covid relief fund. Officials claim they are limited technical cases, while critics insist the main issue is the lack of accountability.
The Palestinian Authority's Covid relief funds were meant to help some of society's most vulnerable [Getty-file photo]

Criticism of the Palestinian Authority (PA) re-emerged in the Palestinian territories this week after an official report found widespread corruption and mismanagement of public funds, particularly money for Covid social relief.

The PA's fund provided urgent cash-aid of $218 to families most in need through the labour and social affairs ministries. The money was meant to particularly target daily wage workers, small business owners and special social cases.

But according to the report from the official Oversight Department covering the year 2020, some of the beneficiaries included employees in the banking sector with salaries of up to $5,000 a month, shareholders in telecommunication companies, and public functionaries with regular salaries - including three individuals who were holders of diplomatic passports.

The report also showed that of the more than 40,000 cases meant to be covered by the program in the Gaza Strip, only 5,533 actually received help.

Politicisation of a bureaucratic issue?

Several Palestinian factions slammed the PA over the report's findings.

Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem called  “open a serious investigation in all cases of corruption”, considering that the report “exposed a state of assault on public money for the benefit of a few”.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) also issued a statement, calling upon “labour unions and civil organisations who are supposed to fight corruption to leave their state of silence, and speak out for the popular classes suffering under poverty”.

While the report has created public controversy, it seems only to have deepened divisions on the state of the Palestinian institutions and political system.

Officials insist that the irregularities exposed by the report are of a bureaucratic nature and not deep-rooted in the Palestinian system. Critics, however, say the real issue lies not just in the cases of corruption themselves, but the lack of a culture of, and process for, accountability.

The director of the Palestinian Oversight department, Jaffal Jaffal, said to The New Arab that the report question is a routine one, issued every year.

“What is special about this year’s report is the fact that it dealt with government performance under the pandemic, which most people can relate to directly”, he said.

According to Jaffal, the main problem in the Palestinian social services system is “the distribution of services without proper checking, which allows individuals to trick the system. This is exactly what happened with the Covid relief programme”.

Jaffal also pointed out that the Palestinian administrative system “lacks the capacity to do effective data management, which is a common situation in most developing countries”.

Talal Nasseraddin, the head of the Covid relief fund, told The New Arab that the fund does not deal directly with beneficiaries.

"We received lists of names from the ministries of labor and social affairs, who supposedly had them checked, and we transferred the aid funds to these ministries,” Nasseraddin said.

According to Nasseraddin, “the fund noticed some irregularities early on and coordinated with the respective ministries and other institutions, beginning the process of recovering the aid money from individuals who didn’t match the criteria. This process started as early as June 2020”.

"Only a few hundred irregularities were reported out of more than 64,000 cases who received aid, which is a low percentage,” he said.

Beyond the numbers

However, according to legal advocacy expert, Issam Abdin, “the main issue is not about the percentage of irregularities, but about accountability”. Abdin explained that “the reason why the report has provoked such a controversy is the fact that the general public don’t expect anyone to be held accountable, especially with the judicial system as a whole being compromised”.

Abdin indicated that “the natural development after such a report would be an independent investigation, followed by a judicial process, which is highly unlikely to happen because Palestinian control bodies, as well as courts, lack independence as a result of the monopoly of the executive branch over institutions”.

This 'monopoly' refers to law changes issued by the Palestinian president in the past months, particularly concerning the judicial system. In December of last year, the president issued a decree prolonging the mandate of the ‘transitory high judicial council’, a body that was created earlier to replace the regular high judicial council, charged with running the court system.

The same decree dismissed key judges and replaced them with new ones, which provoked protests among jurists. Later, the transitory judicial council became a permanent one. To Abdin, “this represents a capture of the judiciary by the executive branch, which adds to the absence of a legislative body, after the supreme court officially dissolved the legislative council, and the president called off elections".

Earlier in April, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended the holding of presidential and legislative elections, scheduled for May, until Israel allows Palestinians in occupied Jerusalem to vote. Earlier this week, the Palestinian supreme court rejected an appeal against the decision to suspend elections, arguing that it is a sovereign decision, one outside the court’s authority.

"All we an do is to report"

The director of the Oversight department,Jaffal Jaffal, agreed that “the cases we showed in the report should normally be investigated by the legislative council, which is absent”.

Jaffal said “the Oversight Department is not a judicial authority. All we can do is to control and report, as well as to present preventive recommendations”.

“The executive bodies in the PA are quite responsive and implement most of the recommendations we present”.

The Palestinian legislative council has been inactive since 2007, following the political split between the PA and Hamas, and it was officially dissolved last December. The Palestinian president’s term ended in 2009. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip have not been able to vote since.