Palestinian president fires advisers, orders return of bonuses

Moves believed to be part of efforts to cut costs and recuperate funds after Israel stopped delivering tax revenues.

    PA President Mahmoud Abbas, 83, has cycled through dozens of advisers over the years [File: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]
    PA President Mahmoud Abbas, 83, has cycled through dozens of advisers over the years [File: Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

    Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has sacked all of his advisers and ordered a former prime minister and other past cabinet ministers to return tens of thousands of dollars from a pay rise he secretly approved two years ago.

    The decisions, announced in official statements on Monday, came as part of efforts to cut costs and recuperate funds after Israel stopped delivering tax revenues earlier this year, Palestinian officials were quoted as saying by The Associated Press (AP) news agency.

    Abbas's office did not provide further details on the number of advisers or the costs involved, pointing only to a brief statement issued through the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.

    The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has long faced charges of corruption and mismanagement.

    Abbas, 83, has cycled through dozens of advisers over the years, with many continuing to receive salaries and benefits after leaving office.

    Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officials told AP that Abbas would reinstate some advisers in the coming days.

    Tax revenues withheld by Israel

    Much of the PA's financial woes stem from Israel's decision to stop delivering some of the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians, a decision aimed at penalising the PA over its payments to the families of Palestinians who have been killed or imprisoned.

    Previously, Israel collected some $190m a month in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through its ports, before transferring the money to the PA.

    But in February it said it would withhold $138m - the amount that Israel says corresponds to what the PA paid prisoners in Israeli jails, or their families.

    Israel says the payment of prisoners or their families encourages further violence, but Palestinians say the funds support families that have lost their main breadwinners.

    Abbas has accused Israel of blackmail and refused to take any of the slashed tax transfers, which account for some 65 percent of PA revenues.

    On top of the tax dispute, the United States has also cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Palestinians via various programmes.

    In order to keep the government afloat, the PA has cut salaries for most of its tens of thousands of employees by half.

    Bonuses retracted 

    In a separate decision, Abbas ordered former Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and other cabinet ministers to return bonuses the president had approved in 2017.

    Documents leaked earlier this year showed that the technocratic former cabinet gave its members lavish payouts. The documents showed that ministers' pay had climbed from $3,000 a month to $5,000 - a 67 percent raise - and that the prime minister's salary was raised to $6,000 a month.

    Abbas had secretly approved the raises, overriding a 2004 law fixing ministerial salaries. The raises were applied retroactively to 2014, when the cabinet took office, resulting in bonuses worth tens of thousands of dollars.

    A $10,000 housing bonus intended for ministers living outside Ramallah, where the PA is based, was given to all ministers, including those with homes in the West Bank city. The government also inflated the exchange rate, giving them a 17 percent premium.

    The revelations have angered many in the West Bank, where unemployment is close to 20 percent, and a typical salary for those who do work, such as civil servants, is roughly $700 to $1,000 a month.

    Hamdallah defended the payments when the documents were leaked in June, saying Abbas approved the request after taking into account rising costs of living. There was no immediate comment from him after Abbas asked for the money back.

    Jihad Harb, a Palestinian political analyst, said it appeared Abbas had decided to sack his advisers following the disclosure of the documents.

    "It is clear that president Abbas received the report from the committee that examined the salaries and benefits of employees," Harb told AFP news agency.

    "[He] wants to reduce his office's spending by taking austerity measures to confront the current budget crisis."

    After years in office, Abbas, of the Fatah party, has seen his popularity plunge, with many Palestinians disillusioned by his failure to deliver an independent state, his loss of the besieged Gaza Strip to the rival Hamas movement and general economic malaise.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies