Palestinians angry as PA cabinet revealed to have given itself secret pay raise

Palestinians angry as PA cabinet revealed to have given itself secret pay raise

Newly revealed documents show Abbas in 2017 approved 67% salary hike and lavish bonuses while West Bank economy struggled, further undermining leadership’s image

PA President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 29, 2019. (Majdi Mohammed / POOL / AFP)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 29, 2019. (Majdi Mohammed / POOL / AFP)

The Palestinian labor market in the West Bank was limping along in 2017, with unemployment stubbornly high and economic growth slowing. But that didn’t stop the Palestinian Authority government from secretly giving itself a series of lavish payouts and perks, highlighted by a 67% salary hike.

They were kept quiet for the past two years, but news of the decision leaked this week in a series of documents posted anonymously to social media.

The revelations have rocked the West Bank, where the cash-strapped cabinet has been forced to slash the salaries of its employees because of a financial crisis. Coming during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time of high expenses for struggling families, the report renewed outrage among Palestinians who have long seen their leadership as out of touch and rife with corruption.

“The cabinet members behaved as if the government is their private shop and they can take as much as they want without being held accountable,” said political commentator Ehab Jareri.

According to one leaked document, the monthly salaries for PA ministers spiked from $3,000 to $5,000, while the prime minister’s salary was raised to $6,000.

Palestinian Authority government meeting in Ramallah on December 27, 2018. (Credit: Wafa)

The raises were kept secret from the public and approved by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, two senior officials said, overriding a 2004 law that fixed ministers’ salaries. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

The pay raise was made retroactive to 2014, when the government took office, giving the ministers an extra bonus of tens of thousands of dollars, the officials said.

The benefits did not end there. Ministers who live outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, received $10,000 a year to rent a house there, another document showed. Officials who already owned Ramallah homes also reaped the lucrative bonus. And in an extra boost, the government inflated the exchange rate, giving them a roughly 17% premium when converting the salaries to Israeli shekels.

The documents were viewed by The Associated Press and authenticated by the Palestinian officials.

After years in office, Abbas — who was elected in 2004 but hasn’t put himself up for a public vote since — has seen his popularity plummet. People are disillusioned by his failure to deliver an independent state, his loss of the Gaza Strip to the rival Hamas terror group and general economic malaise. Unemployment in the West Bank is near 20%, and a typical salary for those who do work, such as civil servants, is roughly $700 to $1,000 a month.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) shakes hands with the prime minister-designate Mohammad Shtayyeh in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on April 13, 2019. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

The leaked documents have sparked widespread outrage on Palestinian social media, with critics branding the government a “farm” or “shop” for top officials. Amid the outrage, the PA has been forced to respond.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, a longtime adviser to Abbas, has suspended the pay raises and referred the issue to Abbas “to review it and take legal measures.” While the issue is investigated, ministers will receive half their salaries, like most other government employees, according to government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim.

Former Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, whose technocratic government enacted the benefits, defended them, saying in a statement: “Cabinet ministers requested the raise in 2017 from President Abbas, who approved it while taking into consideration the rising costs of living.”

The leaked documents offer a rare glimpse inside the workings of the corruption-plagued PA, igniting conversations about what else the government might be hiding.

Palestinians protest against a government tax hike in Ramallah, West Bank, December 12, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

“I think this is just the tip of the iceberg of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, considering that we couldn’t have access to more important information,” said Majdi Abu Zeid, a researcher at the anti-corruption watchdog group Aman.

The leaks coincide with a report by Aman finding that the government has improperly filled senior government jobs without advertising them, appointed officials’ relatives to senior posts and refused to disclose budgets of the presidential office and security forces.

Much of the government’s financial woes stem from a power struggle with Israel over its withholding of $138 million in key tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians.

Israel decided to halt the transfers to penalize the government for paying stipends to imprisoned terrorists and terror suspects, as well as the families of those killed while committing attacks against Israelis. Israel says the stipends encourage and offer a direct incentive to commit terror attacks. The Palestinians describe the payments as social welfare to families affected by conflict, and have refused to accept any tax transfers unless the funding is fully restored. To steady its finances, the authority has enacted austerity measures.

Against this backdrop, the litany of leaked findings has deepened public disillusionment. Opinion surveys conducted by the prominent Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki reveal that over 80% of Palestinians consider their leadership corrupt.

“The Palestinian Authority lost the trust of people a long time ago because of its unlawful practices,” said analyst Jihad Harb. After the latest leaks, he added, the government looks “very vulnerable and shaken.”

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