Wiretapping allegations cause new embarrassment to Abbas

The outrage over the wiretapping allegations could cast doubt on the sincerity of Abbas’s diplomatic push for statehood.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on February 3. (AFP)
New concerns. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on February 3. (AFP)

LONDON - Allegations that Palestinian Authority officials, with the help of the US Central Intelligence Agency, eavesdropped on rivals and allies of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas led to high-profile figures suing the Palestinian government.

Former Palestinian intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi and bar association head Jawad Obeidat said they were seeking legal action against the Palestinian Authority (PA) after a 37-page anonymous document, reportedly leaked by a whistle-blower, revealed they had been victims of a wiretapping operation said to have been set up in 2014.

PA officials dismissed the authenticity of the document, with one security spokesman branding it as “nonsense.”

Obeidat and Tirawi said they believed the document to be accurate. “I made these phone calls and this is evidence that the leaked report is true,” Obeidat told the Associated Press.

Tirawi told Ma’an news agency that the wiretapping was carried out illegally. He told al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper that, from 1994-2008 when he was head of Palestinian intelligence, wiretapping was only allowed after receiving permission from the public prosecutor.

Speaking to Sky News Arabia, he said he filed a lawsuit against the Palestinian telecom company Jawwal over its suspected collusion with the security services in the alleged eavesdropping.

Adli Shaban Hasan Sadeq, former Palestinian ambassador to India, Algeria and Romania, said the wiretapping was meant to give Abbas an advantage over his political rivals and did not serve a security purpose.

“They want to know if the respectable lawmaker Yahya Shamiya has travelled with his wife or on his own… if they pass on this information to the enemy (Israel), the enemy will rebuke them: ‘How petty and silly you are, that’s not what we want of you’,” wrote Sadeq in an opinion article on the Palestinian website Ahwal el-Belad.

“These people (alleged eavesdroppers) are despised by Palestinians and Israelis alike,” wrote Sadeq. “The vast majority of Palestinians who work in the public domain behave with the assumption that their conversations are being recorded.”

Palestinian officials sought to downplay the scale of such operations.

“Wiretapping operations are conducted but in very narrow contexts and targeting people suspected of security breaches or criminal offences,” a Palestinian security service official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Commentators said the legal case against the government was unlikely to make serious progress.

“The public prosecutor in the West Bank works under political directions, not legal ones,” Abdul Sattar Qassem, a Palestinian university professor who had been arrested on a number of charges, including insulting the president, told the website felesteen.ps.

Although the outcry may hit a legal dead end, the allegations are likely to cause political embarrassment for Abbas domestically. They would likely demonstrate that security coordination with the United States has continued despite disagreement between the Palestinian leader and Washington over the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The purported leaker of the document, who remains anonymous, said they recently quit their job because they objected to the continued US-Palestinian sharing of intelligence.

Abbas is to address the UN Security Council on February 20. He is expected to criticise US President Donald Trump’s policy on Jerusalem and the stalled Middle East peace process in general.

The United States said it was withholding $65 million of a planned $125 million funding instalment for the UN agency tasked with helping Palestinian refugees. Abbas reiterated that the United States cannot impose a peace deal on the Palestinians. “This is our pen and we are the only ones to sign,” he said.

The Palestinian leader appears to be searching for alternatives to the United States in the peace process, looking for support from the United Nations, the European Union and Russia. He is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a possible new mediation mechanism to replace the Middle East Quartet.

Abbas is also scheduled to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an apparent bid to dissuade New Delhi, a traditional ally of the Palestinians, from siding with Israel, following a recent visit by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to India.

The outrage over the wiretapping allegations, especially as they are perceived to be conducted for domestic political purposes with the support of the United States, could cast doubt on the sincerity of Abbas’s diplomatic push for statehood.