RAMALLAH // A senior aide to the Palestinian president said he is the victim of a conspiracy, breaking a days-long silence to respond to allegations implicating him in a sex-for-jobs incident that aired on Friday on Israeli television. Mahmoud Abbas suspended his chief of staff, Rafiq Husseini, on Sunday, pending the findings of a commission of inquiry into the affair, hoping to draw a line under a scandal that has dominated conversations among Palestinians for the past four days.
Although details of the allegations, made by a former Palestinian Authority intelligence officer, have been circulating in the rumour mill for more than a year and some had already been published in Israeli newspapers, it was not until lurid footage was broadcast on Israel Channel 10 that a full-scale scandal broke out. The footage purports to show Mr Husseini soliciting sex from a woman who hopes to secure a job in his office and stripping naked in a bedroom before being interrupted by security officials.
But last night, in remarks taped for broadcast, Mr Husseini, flanked by family members, rejected the allegation and said his voice had been faked and the footage doctored in an attempt to smear him and, by implication, the office of Mr Abbas. He nevertheless agreed to stand aside and said he would co-operate with any investigation. Fahmi Shabaneh, the former PA intelligence officer at the heart of the case, however, alleges that his then boss, Tawfiq Tirawi, had ordered him to conduct an investigation into specific allegations that Mr Husseini solicited sex for jobs. Mr Tirawi, who is a member of Fatah's ruling central committee, has since moved from his post as intelligence chief and has denied ordering any such investigation.
Mr Shabaneh also claims that the video was only the tip of the iceberg and that he is in possession of proof of corruption among the higher echelons of Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in dozens of other cases dating from the era of Yasser Arafat. He claims he had presented all his evidence to the current Palestinian leadership and only because it took no action did he go to the media. Fatah officials, however, dismiss Mr Shabaneh as an Israeli stooge and, because the case has come to light in the Israeli media, say the whole affair is an Israeli-orchestrated smear campaign against Mr Abbas. The former PA security official, who holds a Jerusalem ID, is a lawyer by profession and is currently under house arrest by Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem facing charges of recruiting Jerusalemites to the PA security forces.
Mr Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, have worked hard to create an image of fiscal probity in the PA and with some success. The PA was generally perceived as widely corrupt under Arafat, Mr Abbas's predecessor, but donor countries have praised Mr Fayyad in particular for improving the authority's financial transparency. Significantly, however, and in spite of some arrests, there have been no high-profile corruption cases brought to court and Palestinian public perception is influenced by the fact that if corruption is harder to get away with today than it was, past transgressions have yet to be punished.
"I don't like what he [Mr Shabaneh] did by going to Israeli media, and I am sure he is not clean," said Ahmed, 28, a builder in Ramallah. Ahmed, who refused to give his full name, said it was "obvious" that senior PA officials "had always protected each other". Palestinian officials have been highly reluctant to comment on the case. One, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was not clear why Mr Shabaneh had been ordered to conduct the investigation - if indeed he had - and suggested that both he and Mr Husseini were caught in an internal Fatah power struggle.
There is also widespread unhappiness, both within and outside of Fatah, at the way the affair was subsequently dealt with by Mr Abbas, who should, some argue, have dismissed Mr Husseini when the case first came to his attention a year-and-a-half ago. Mr Abbas's rivals in Hamas, meanwhile, have been surprisingly restrained in their approach to the affair. Al Aqsa TV, the channel controlled by the Islamist Resistance Movement, has yet to broadcast the footage, and Hamas officials have not made any public comments on the affair.
Nevertheless, the case will bolster Hamas's long-standing assertion that the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and in need of root-and-branch reform, a slogan that saw the movement win parliamentary elections in 2006. email@example.com