EVEN IN THOSE parts of the Middle East where the culture of corruption has become part of the established social and political fabric, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA) was a model of venality.
In a land that dates from antiquity, the scale of corruption the former Palestinian leader allowed after the Oslo accords, indeed encouraged as a means of maintaining himself in power, was arguably one of the biggest obstacles in the Palestinian people's struggle to reinvent themselves as shareholders in a modern state.
In the end, Arafat, reliant as he was on foreign aid, had to address the problem of official corruption that was bleeding dry the nascent Palestinian state. But he still kept much of the financial dealings of the PA under wraps.
Now, 18 months after his death, the fundamentalist movement Hamas controls the PA, after trouncing Arafat's long-dominant Fatah at the polls in January 2006 and is grappling with a collapsing economy, weakened from endemic corruption and abysmal mismanagement under Arafat's rule.
As the first fundamentalist movement in the Arab world to win power through the ballot box, it is looking to make the Palestinian administration more transparent and accountable, a mission which, if successful, could have enormous political impact in the region.
Yet the man leading this campaign is not a Hamas loyalist, but someone appointed by Arafat's successor. It was President Mahmoud Abbas who gave the order for Attorney-General Ahmed Al Meghani to begin to "clean up the house".
His actions so far have been somewhat modest, but Meghani seems determined to root out the rampant corruption that has crippled Palestinian efforts towards establishing a viable Arab democracy in the Holy Land and left it apparently penniless when the United States and other donors cut offaid after Hamas--branded a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU--won their surprise electoral victory in January. It has been agreed some funding will now be re-established on purely humanitarian grounds, not through any change of heart on a PA dominated by Hamas.
The Hamas victory was in large part because of the Palestinians' mounting frustration and anger over the corruption that was so rampant under Arafat and his cronies. Many of them, veteran Fatah stalwarts bought and paid for by Arafat, remained in office after Abbas was elected president in early 2005.
A few days after the Hamas triumph, Meghani announced that a PA investigation into official corruption had established that at least $700m had been "squandered or stolen" in recent years, with large amounts "transferred into personal accounts here and abroad". The corruption was so pervasive and deeply rooted that the actual total of plundered funds "may be billions of dollars". At least 50 cases of "financial and administrative corruption" had been investigated, he added, with 25 officials arrested up to early February. Meghani disclosed that at least 10 PA officials had fled the country during the investigations; all are now the subject of international arrest warrants. Four of them, he said, are holed up in neighbouring Jordan with two more in other Arab countries he did not name. However, sources in the PA said some...