Ramallah, West Bank -- The wife of Yasser Arafat was locked in a bitter dispute with Palestinian officials over the fate of his vast secret fortune as the Palestinian leader lay apparently near death in a French hospital, according to a report on the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera.
Arafat's secret assets have been estimated at anywhere between $200 million (Forbes magazine) and $6 billion (U.S. and Israeli intelligence). Forbes listed him ninth in its ranking of the world's wealthiest heads of state -- even though he is a ruler without a country and many of his people are refugees.
In Paris, the struggle over Arafat's hidden millions threatened to overshadow his final days. His wife, Suha Arafat, hopes to inherit at least part of his fortune. But, according to Al-Jazeera, Palestinian leaders demand that it be handed over to the Palestinian people.
The assets are managed in a complex network of bank accounts, holding companies and stocks whose details are known only to his closest confidant, financial adviser Mohammed Rashid.
Suha Arafat has access to some of the money, but apparently even she does not know all the ins and outs of the secret accounts. Al-Jazeera reported that she asked Rashid to make out a list of Arafat's assets and that he refused, saying he would report only to the Palestinian Authority.
According to Al-Jazeera, Arafat had written a will leaving at least some of his fortune to his wife and their 9-year-old daughter Zahwa, but other reports said Arafat has no will, leaving most of his fortune in the hands of Rashid.
When the 75-year-old Palestinian leader was flown to a military hospital outside Paris on Oct. 29, Suha Arafat took control of his medical care, although the couple have lived apart for nearly four years.
Thirty years younger than Arafat, the Christian, Sorbonne-educated Suha Tawil married the Palestinian leader in a secret ceremony in 1992 in Tunisia, where she worked for the Palestine Liberation Organization. After Arafat's return to the Palestinian territories in 1994, she played the part of Palestinian first lady, but spent most of her time in Paris. She left the family's home in Gaza in January 2001 and took Zahwa to Paris, where they have lived ever since at the five-star Bristol Hotel.
French officials earlier this year began investigating the transfer of $11.5 million from Swiss bank accounts to accounts in France controlled by Suha Arafat.
"What is so strange for the Palestinian president to send any amount of money to his family and his wife, who is protecting the Palestinian interests abroad, and the money came and will come legally?" she told an interviewer from Al-Hayat, an Arab-language newspaper published in London.
With Arafat apparently near death, questions linger about what has happened to the billions in aid money from the international community to build the nascent Palestinian state. Many suspect that Suha Arafat's luxurious lifestyle -- as well as the cars, villas and expensive education of other prominent Palestinian families -- was bought with cash stolen from international donors and tax revenues.
In 1997, the Palestinian Authority's own officials found that $323 million -- more than a third of the total budget -- had gone missing. The International Monetary Fund said last year that $750 million had been "diverted" from the Palestinian budget up to the year 2000. Identifying Arafat's personal fortune and separating it from numerous secret bank accounts in the name of the PLO and Fatah, his political faction, will be no easy task.
Jean-Claude Robard, a Swiss investment adviser, told Al-Jazeera that Arafat opened his first secret bank account in 1965 with a $50,000 check from the emir of Kuwait. Since then, Robard said, Arafat has set up other accounts in Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and the Cayman Islands. Robard said Arafat also owns a number of hotels and holiday resorts in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland and Austria and is the main shareholder in two cellular telephone companies operating in Tunisia and Algeria.
After the Oslo peace accords were finalized in 1994, tax and customs revenues collected by Israel on Palestinian salaries and goods were transferred to a personal account in Arafat's name held at an Israeli bank branch in Tel Aviv. Between 1996 and 2000, Israel paid more than $500 million in tax revenues on oil sales alone into Arafat's personal account, according to a report by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
In December 2002, an Israeli accountant named Ozrad Lev said in an interview with the Israeli daily Maariv that he was involved in the illegal transfer of $300 million in Palestinian funds to Arafat through a secret Swiss account. The funds were transferred from an official Palestinian account at a branch of the Arab Bank in Ramallah by Arafat and one of his top aides, said Lev.
He also said he helped open and manage the Swiss account with Yossi Ginossar, a former Israeli security official with widespread Palestinian business dealings who died earlier this year.
Lev told Maariv that the account was opened at the Swiss bank Lombard Odier & Cie in April 1997 using copies of Arafat's personal documents, including his passport. The account was opened in the name of a front company, Ledbury, which was later changed to Crouper.
Two years ago, American accountant Jim Prince told CBS' "60 Minutes" that part of the Palestinian leader's wealth was in a secret portfolio worth close to $1 billion, with investments in companies such as a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Ramallah, a Tunisian cell phone company and venture capital funds in the United States and the Cayman Islands.
Although the money for the portfolio came from public funds, including Palestinian taxes, virtually none of it was used for the Palestinian people; it was all controlled by Arafat, Prince said, adding that none of these dealings was made public.
Al-Jazeera said some of Arafat's businesses are in partnership with Arab politicians, former officials and entrepreneurs, including Rifaat Assad, a brother of the late Syrian President Hafez Assad, and Barzan Al-Takriti, a half-brother of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Al-Takriti now is under arrest in Baghdad.