Regression of integrity depleted citizens’ trust in the state institutions and officials
Ramallah/ Gaza: For the fourteenth consecutive year, the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability – AMAN launches its annual report on the assessment of integrity and anti-corruption in Palestine in 2021. The report monitors the reality of integrity and anti-corruption efforts and the challenges facing the integrity of governance. It identified the key forms of corruption and the prosecution of offenders while evaluating the evolution of the governance of public funds management. It focused on the transparency in preparing, enacting, and implementing the public budget shedding light on cases of corruption and institutions that have solicited the public interest.
The report entitled, “Regression of Integrity depleted citizens’ trust in state institutions and officials” submitted specific recommendations to stop political or partisan interference in the Palestinian official decision-making. It also proposed steps to help the stakeholders to adopt the necessary procedures to reinforce the national integrity system and immunize it against corruption. The report reiterated that government officials must make their decisions to serve the public and citizens’ interests to restore citizens’ trust in the state institutions and help citizens with the burden of the current political and socioeconomic conditions.
Al-Husseini: The protracted political division and absence of the PLC obstructed official oversight and undermined the integrity of governance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip
Mr. Abdelqader Al-Hussein, Chairman of the Board of Aman Coalition, started his opening speech with a diagnosis of the general context, reiterating that the largest challenge affecting the Palestinians is the Israeli occupation and its apartheid regime and ethnic cleansing, mainly in Jerusalem not to mention its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Speaking of other challenges, Al-Husseini stated the postponement of the legislative elections prior to the commencement of the electoral campaign as a major hindrance to democracy and civil freedoms. He added that the postponement after the full preparation was not justified and only mounted popular dissatisfaction in addition to obstructing government accountability. Moreover, Hamas’s prevention of the organization of local elections until the end of 2021 is not justifiable since this step deprives citizens of the right to elect their local representatives.
Despite the more social accountability of local authorities, 2021 has not witnessed much of this accountability due mainly to the absence of the PLC, the authority vested with questioning the government and senior officials. On the other hand, without a PLC, the role of the State Administrative Control and Audit Bureau (SAACB) was jeopardized leaving the government without any accountability. The office of the PNA president continued to monopolize the appointment of the heads of public institutions without any periodic accountability mechanisms.
Al-Husseini further explained that the human rights and public freedoms system was shaken following the assassination of activist Nizar Banat by Palestinian security agents and the subsequent suppression of the demonstrations protesting his assassination and arrests of activists and media representatives.
28% of citizens believe that combatting corruption represents the most urgent necessity even before addressing the occupation
Al-Hussein referred to the survey on corruption and anti-corruption in Palestine, conducted in October 2021. He explained that the findings revealed pessimism among the Palestinian public regarding the key challenges that must be solved. According to the survey, the priority was combatting corruption (28% of respondents), followed by dealing with the occupation policies and the economic crisis (23% each) then the protracted political division (13%).
Al-Husseini: Organizing the public elections will redress the Palestinian political system and protect it against political corruption
The Chairman of AMAN Coalition pointed out the important recommendations relating to the pillars of good governance before tackling the findings of the report. He emphasized the need to set a new date to organize the legislative and presidential elections shortly to enable broader public participation. Al-Husseini further underscored the adoption of an official open policy vis-à-vis civil society that is based on mutual respect and complementarity. The government, he added, needed to adopt an expenditure rationalization plan that focuses on a fair distribution of the already limited resources and burdens. He stressed that the health sector and aid to the poor and marginalized households must be given priority and that the government needs to adopt a transparent system that enables citizens to access public information and participate in decision-making and management of public affairs and finance.
Mr. Jihad Harb, a senior researcher at AMAN Coalition, highlighted the governance situation in 2021. He started with the government policies highlighting President Mahmoud Abbas’s decree on 18/10/2021 to establish a national administrative reform committee, presided by the legal counsel of the President to review the existing laws, regulations, and institutional structures of the state. The Committee is also mandated to review the public function to slim down the structure and rationalize expenses while improving performance. Harb also stressed the importance of clarifying the status of the PLO affiliated organizations but also underscored that the said Committee has not published any action plan or results of its work.
Weak national and official preparedness for disaster management:
The report also focused on the challenges triggered by the emergency and weak national disaster risk-management preparedness because of a regulatory framework and a national participatory plan to activate the National Disaster Management Center. The poor governmental database slowed down many initiatives, caused confusion and even failure to distribute assistance to the citizens harmed by the pandemic, and triggered fraud and nepotism.
The report emphasized the need for a comprehensive and permanent disaster-management system in Palestine that guarantees in every phase of the response a clear distribution of roles and responsibilities and monitoring and evaluation, mainly regarding the collection and distribution of assistance.
Combatting corruption is not exclusive to the Anti-Corruption Commission … other governmental institutions must play a role
The government has not yet adopted a national cross-sectoral strategy to promote integrity and combat corruption to guide ministries and public institutions’ plans. As a result, ACC became the only body managing anti-corruption efforts. Furthermore, insufficient funding and mismanagement hindered the implementation of the national cross-sectoral plans. The report advised the government to adopt a national cross-sectoral anti-corruption strategy to build solid and immune integrity and anti-corruption system and ensure complementarity of roles of ACC and other government bodies.
The President’s Office continues to control the public institutions, mainly oversight bodies
The report also recorded the promulgation of laws that do not necessarily serve the public interest. Indeed, the Palestinian presidency issued decree-laws in 2020, including Decree-Law No. 39 of 2021 that amended the Law on the State Administrative Audit and Control Bureau (SAACB) No. 15 of 2004, as amended and the Law on Sharia justice system. These laws reinforce the President’s hegemony of the public, mainly oversight, institutions rather than serving the public interest.
Ongoing political and security interference in appointments to senior public posts
Appointment to senior public posts (including promotions and transfers) continues to be recommended by the influential elite with the support of the security agencies under the pretense of security. These appointments serve personal or partisan (supporters of the regime and their offspring) and included appointments in the diplomatic corps, security agencies, and sharia courts. The appointments are not based on merits or equal opportunities and transparency. Consequently, the ruling regime subjugated the state institutions to serve its goals and to immunize its elite and supporters against accountability to the detriment of the public interest.
Grand corruption punishes the non-supporters
Appointment to senior and special posts continued in 2021 without any consideration of the principle of equal opportunities or due advertisement and competition procedures. All these appointments were not subject to the oversight of an official body to ensure their integrity, transparency, and due process in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Furthermore, some ministers punished the “disloyal” by referring them to early retirement, dismissing them from office, or demoting them to marginal posts.
Reiterating the recommendation to establish (Governance Quality Control Committee) to monitor senior appointments and the integrity of the public function
The report recommended an immediate freeze of the public (civil and security) appointments to ensure that a due process is established and implemented to fill in the vacancies. It stressed the need to establish a governance quality control committee to monitor these senior appointments and the integrity of the public function. The committee will be mandated to assess candidates’ fitness for the post before their appointment and ensure their legal mandate in the office is respected, especially for ambassadors, governors, commanders of security agencies, and heads of ministerial and non-ministerial public institutions. The report also underscored the need to adopt a rigorous and binding policy to depoliticize the public function and reinforce oversight bodies to hold accountable any official abusing his/her public post to serve his/her party or personal interests.
Official investigation committees formed by the government deepened the public trust gap
The official investigation committees formed by the government upon the initiative of the President, or the Prime Minister do not follow a clear regulatory framework to identify their structure, membership, procedures, the mandate to summon, and binding recommendations. As a result, citizens’ trust in these committees formed to investigate offenses committed by public officials and staff declined. Examples of these committees include the committee to investigate the assassination of Nizar Banat and the one on the Pfizer vaccine swot deal with the Israeli side.
The government refers the financial crisis to the future generations as it addresses the budget deficit with an accumulated debt
The report also revealed that the public budget process continues to lack transparency and participation. MoF compliance with the public fund management reform plans is limited, especially as regards transparency of salaries. On another level, the government needs to address the net lending and the depletion of public finance due to a failed medical insurance system. The report monitored the impact of MoF’s policy of arrears to services suppliers on the quality of services and the contractual prices, such as hospitals’ hygiene and rehabilitation of the infrastructure. The government has adopted a policy to increase local collection of revenues but continues to depend on arrears and debts to tackle the chronic budget deficit.
The public media does not reflect all Palestinian streams and lacks a regulatory framework
The 2021 report noticed that the taxpayers’ funded public media continues to express the opinion of the executive power only and disregards other streams while the opposition or parties that do not support the government are alienated. The report recommended a revisiting of the structure of the public media corporation to become more inclusive and pluralistic. It also reiterated the need for public media legislation.
The judicial power’s oversight of public officials is regressing
Following the amendment of the Law on the Judicial Authority, the report noticed a regression of the independent oversight of the judicial power of public officials and their decisions. It highlighted the recommendations of the Civil Society Forum relating to the reform and protection of the judiciary, most importantly a review of the decree-laws enacted end of 2020 to ensure that the justice system is independent and impartial and that it plays an effective oversight of the administration, including guaranteeing the integrity of appointments and promotions. The position of the President of the High Judicial Council, which is an administrative position, must be separated from the position of the President of the Higher Court, which is a judicial mandate. Membership of the High Judicial Council must be open to community participation to promote its integrity and form its units and committees. The recent judicial laws must be abolished.
Prescribe controls on the recruitment and promotion in the security forces to avoid high ranks overstaffing
The report explained that security agents are promoted automatically, leading to an inflation of high ranks in many security agencies. It, therefore, recommended the promulgation of the executive regulations to control recruitment and promotions in the security sector and prevent overstaffing in high ranks, compared to commissioned officers. These controls will help reduce the spending on the security sector compared to other social sectors.
Abuse of the religious institutions to serve private interests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip
The report detected exploitation by some officials in formal religious positions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of their position noting that appointments in these institutions are based on political affiliations.
Government’s failure to protect state-owned land against encroachments
The report revealed continuing encroachments on state-owned land by several influential persons without any action by the law enforcement agencies to protect these lands. The Land Authority obtained several court judgments to redress the situation, but they were not enforced. In the Gaza Strip, the report detected allocation, leasing, or swot of state-owned land to serve certain investors or companies without any clear criteria of selection or application of a due legal procedure.
The report assertively recommended ending the encroachments on state-owned land and enforcing the courts’ judgments to prosecute the offenders.
Promotion of governance transparency and public participation in the making of public decisions
The report also noted that the government continues its secret handling of public affairs ignoring the principles of transparency and public participation. The Council of Ministers publishes only the titles of its resolutions without the full text while the reading of draft laws in the sessions of the council of Ministers is unclear. The report recommended the publication of the government decisions relating to public affairs on the official website of the Council of Ministers and enable easy and timely public access to these resolutions. It also recommends adopting a participatory approach in the discussion of draft laws and other legislation.
Draft law on access to information … not promulgated to date
The draft law on access to information has been drafted for over 18 years but has not been promulgated to date. The report reiterated its recommendation to the government to identify its policies and instructions on the classification of administrative files to enable access to the public documents and post them on the government’s websites. These policies cannot be formulated and implemented without the enactment of the law on access to information to prescribe the duties of public officials and staff to deliver public information to citizens and the law on the national archive as a preemptive step to ratify and enforce the law on access to information.
The Palestinian gas file is still a mystery
the government’s policy in managing the gas file is still secretive and untransparent. The government has been refraining from disclosing the membership documents in the East Mediterranean Gas Forum or any data on the Palestinian entitlements to the Mediterranean gas or the obligations of Palestine following the signature of these agreements. Therefore, the AMAN coalition recommended publishing the documents relating to the management of gas, including those of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum and the government’s resolutions on the creation of the Palestinian Gas Company. The same applies to the publication of activity and other reports by public institutions, civil organizations, and corporations managing or distributing utilities like electricity, water, and telecommunications.
Non-disclosure of the procedures to recover the funds acquired by former ministers to the public treasury
The report included recommendations to MoF to comply with the publication of the eight financial documents considered as the minimum information by international budget transparency standards. It also needs to publish the full details and data of the public debt, including the arrears and the debt to the Pension Fund, civil servants and banks. The Ministry of Finance also needs to redress its financial relationship with the Israeli side to halt the depletion of the Palestinian financial entitlements through the current leaks of the clearance funds. On another level, it needs to adopt a progressive tax system that guarantees social and tax justice to all citizens. The government also needs to publish its measures to recover the funds paid to ministers following the rise in their salaries.
Effective oversight of vital utilities providers
The report referred to the insufficient and ineffective official oversight of the public utility companies and increasing citizens’ complaints against the telecommunication and electricity companies in general and against the prices and quality of service. Thus, the report recommended the establishment of the Palestinian Telecommunication Regulatory Commission in the application of Decree-Law No 37 of 2021 to guarantee effective oversight of these utilities’ providers.
Criminalizing the private sector’s corruption and publication of annual reports by the National Anti-money Laundering Committee
Some private sector companies are still not subjected to the Anti-Corruption Law. It is, however, necessary to criminalize corruption in the public shareholdings and utilities. The report did not detect sufficient efforts to combat money laundering in Palestine because the national antimony laundering committee does not publish reports, data, or significant statistics on the spread of this crime and its proceeds. The report recommended the due publication of this committee’s reports.
Confidential information but transparency is needed in the case of sale of settlements’ dates under a Palestinian label
The report stressed the necessity to publish information on issues of public concern like the recent trading in settlements dates with a Palestinian label in order to avoid any financial settlements or blackmailing in handling the case, the law must be fully implemented without any undue influence.
AMAN Coalition calls for enacting a package of laws to prevent some forms of corruption. These include the Law on Franchises, Law on Free Competition and Prohibition of Monopolies, Regulation of the Palestinian Investment Fund, Law on the Public Petroleum Commission, Law on Governors detailing their terms of appointment and qualifications together with their mandates and accountability. The Anti-Corruption Commission must be vested with the discretionary authority to provide protection to corruption whistleblowers against any threats or retaliation following their reporting of corruption.
The de facto authority in Gaza did not publish any of the eight documents of the minimum requirement for public budget transparency
Based on the report, the ruling authority in Gaza did not fulfill the requirements of public budget transparency and management as it did not publish any of the eight documents. In 2021, it published insufficient information on public procurements, bids, and contracts on MoF website. The report called on the Gaza Strip authority to publish all relevant financial data on the management of public finance in the southern governorates.
Publication of Zakat committees’ data on the unified social assistance portal
The report monitored the multiplicity of sources of Zakat funds and reiterated the lack of coordination and limited transparency in their distribution. It further noted injustice in the distribution of in-kind and emergency assistance and inefficient oversight and accountability in a manner that compromises citizens’ rights and equity. It recommended centralized documentation of social assistance data, including aid from Zakat committees, via the unified social assistance portal.
Local elections must be held in the Gaza Strip
Hamas continued its policy of no local elections in the Gaza Strip, which undermined the legitimacy of the appointed local councils and citizens’ rights to hold them accountable. This situation deprived the Strip of international infrastructure assistance. Therefore, the report urged the ruling authority in the Gaza Strip to organize local elections to enable citizens to choose their local representatives.
Enactment of laws and resolutions that do not serve the public interest continues and signals a shift toward an authoritarian regime, violence, threat to civil peace, and dismantling of the political system. The public interest must always supersede personal or party interests. It is necessary to adopt a national action plan to restore the unity of the West Bank and Gaza Strip institutions and rebuild citizens’ trust in their political system with guarantees to exercise the public freedoms prescribed in the Basic Law. Substantial reforms are needed at the political level, starting with the elections to ensure public participation of all sectors and adopt effective mechanisms to combat corruption.