An Interview with Hassan Khareishah, the head of the PLC’ committee, which investigated the Egyptian Cement Scandal, and the head of the PLC’ monitoring committee.
Translated and Summarized by: Ghassan Andoni
Q1) few days ago, the PLC investigation committee published its report of the Egyptian cement corruption case, can you update us?
8 months ago we received an official request to investigate the issue of the Egyptian cement from Economic minister Maher Kurd. The request included copies of articles published in the Egyptian based Al-Arbi newspaper.
The issue was moved to the Monitoring committee which decided to form an investigation committee.
The committee started questioning the general director of the economic ministry Abdul-Hafiz nofel who provided contradictory information.
The committee then head to Cairo to continue with the investigations.
Q2) prior to heading to Cairo, did you arrive at any early conclusions?
We actually concluded that the Economic minister was not aware of much of what was going on in his ministry and realized that few senior ministry employees were directly involved in the case.
Q3) What did you find in Cairo?
We met with Al-Arbi Chief Editor Abdullah Sinawi and reporter Saed Suriki, who wrote the articles on the cement scandal.
Swirki told us that he started with following the activities of an Israeli businessman, known as Bilinsky, who was paying repeated visits to Cairo and was repeatedly seen visiting cement factories in Swies and Beny Sweif.
According to Swirki investigations, Bilinsky, who owned a company called Totman Concert, imported more than 100,000 tons of Egyptian cement in few months.
The investigations published on Bilinsky’s activities and a campaign against normalizing relations with Israel forced Egyptian cement factories to stop selling cement to him.
Apparently, Bilinski started looking at alternatives to import the highly needed Egyptian cement through his relations with few Palestinian companies.
Al-Arabi newspaper then published an article saying that Palestinian ministers were cooperating with Bilinski to provide Egyptian cement to the West Bank separation wall.
Al-Arabi newspaper did provide us with documents confirming that what was published was true.
Sweriki introduced us to an Egyptian named Issam who owns a transportation company. Issam confirmed that his company transported more than 1440 tons of cement to Awja crossing at the Israeli-Egyptian borders. Issam as well provided us with documents and invoices that prove the provided information.
Before we met Issam, we met with the representative of Juma Tarifi Company in Cairo. Tarifi is a Palestinian businessman who owns cement factories in the West bank. He is a relative of Minister Jamil Tarifi and an ex-partner to the minister brother Jamal.
Juma and Jamal owned a commercial office in Cairo headed by Walid Umari, the son of Fakhri Umari who was killed by Israeli Mosad agents together with Salah Khalaf, Fatah’s central committee member, in Tunisia in the year 1991.
Umari told us that his office was dealing with Jamal Barakah from Intisar Barakah Company, which is registered in both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority. We used to buy Egyptian cement and send it to Palestine to Juma Tarifi.
As we suspected that part of the cement is going to an unknown destination, we stopped dealing with Barakah Company. At this point Juma applied to get a permit to import Egyptian cement directly.
Juma was faced with serious complications and was only approved after reducing the amount to be imported from 50,000 to 20,000 tons.
According to Umari, Jamal Tarifi, the brother of Minister Jamil Tarifi managed to obtain a permit to import Egyptian cement in one day.
When we asked the Institute of scales and qualifications, they told us that Jamal’s permit was issued by the Minsitry of Economics against the advice of the institute.
We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t yet have an answer to this question.
Q5) do you think that the Economy Minister intervened to ease the process?
Possible, but no one answered our inquiries, including Jamal Tarifi.
Umari told us that Egyptian security asked him to deliver a message to the Palestinian Prime Minister. Umari met with the director of Qurei’s office and informed him that part of the cement provided to the Palestinian Authority finds its way to Israel and is being used to construct the separation wall.
According to the general director of the Economic Ministry Abdul-Hafiz Nofel, the Prime Minister called him and requested an explanation.
Nofel wrote to Beni Sweif cement factory in Egypt that the permits provided to both Juma and Jamal Tarifi were halted and informed Qurei that there was no problem and that halting the permits was only a pre-emptive measure.
As we met again with owner of the Egyptian transportation company Issam for the second time, he received a phone call from a person called Maher, who, according to Issam, is the representative of both Jamal Tarifi and Belinsiki.
Issam allowed us to listen to the call. Maher said ‘the issue is closed, you will receive the agreed upon payment’ Issam answered ‘I want your boss to talk to me’
In 20 minutes, the phone rang again, this time it was, according to Issam, Jamal tarifi. Jamal said ‘you still donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know me, I will pay you what was agreed upon’.
Issam told us that Jamal promised to pay him $ 10,000 in exchange of him confirming to the investigation committee that the all the cement was delivered to the Palestinian Authority areas.
Issam confirmed to us that all the cement imported by jamal Tarifi was delivered to Israel and presented to us Bank transactions proving that both Jamal Tarifi and Belinski deposited money into the cement factory account.
Issam explained to us that while the Palestinian import permit is presented to the Egyptian factory, the quantity is transferred through Awja crossing into Nitsana area inside Israel, where the ownership is transferred to Belinski company and then the quantity goes to Israel.
Q6) can you identify the period in which this bluffing occured?
It happened between September 2003 and March 2004.
Prior to this period, all the cement was imported through The Palestinian Services Company headed by Khaled Islam, the economic advisor of President Yasser Arafat.
The Palestinian Services company enjoyed a monopoly over cement imports from Israel, Jordan, and Turkey and no other company was allowed to import cement.
It is still puzzling to why the door was opened for importing cement from Egypt only, to why permits to import 420,000 tons were issued, and into why Israel accepted this against the signed economic agreements, which forbids any Palestinian company from importing any kind of goods to Israel.
It is important here to state that cement was provided to Palestinian company at $ 22 per ton against the market price, which is $ 26 per ton.
As well, cement imported from Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt way exceeds the market needs in the Palestinian areas.
Q7) What are your conclusions after the Cairo visit?
Well, we have specific names of three Palestinian companies that are involved in this issue; Intisar Barakah, Juma tarifi, and Jamal Tarifi companies.
The name of Barka Company, owned by the brother of Ex-security affairs minister Mohamed Dahlan, was mentioned, but we have no evidence that the company is involved in providing Israel with cement.
Q8) Do you have a concert prove that the cement is being used to construct the separation wall?
We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have such a prove, but as the quantities were arriving into the Israeli market, it either went directly to the wall or helped release other quantities to be used in the wall construction.
We do have a report presented by Jirar Qudwa, the head of the Palestinian monitoring Commission to President Arafat in which he noted that the cement arriving through Awja crossing is arriving in Israel and being used to construct the Separation wall.
Q9) what measures did President Arafat take after receiving the report?
Unfortunately nothing was done.
Q10) what steps did you take after arriving back to Palestine?
We immediately met with Prime Minister Qurei and explained to him the results of our investigation and asked him to provide us with related information.
The prime minister provided us with a file including a letter from the Economics Minister, in which he refers to a ministry decision to form an investigation committee.
The ministerial committee, according to the information included in the file, concluded that the permit to import Egyptian cement provided to jaml Tarifi was actually signed by ministry employee Ayman Shahwan using the name of the ministry general director Abdul-Hafiz Nofel, while the later was outside the country.
Shahwan reported that Jamal Tarifi dictated to him what to write and asked him to stamp it.
After looking at the ministerial report, we went to the Ministry of Economics and examined the import permits. In Few of them quantities were written in numbers, but not in words, others did not have proper dates, and few were hand written.
We as well visited Minister Tarifi and insisted on questioning his brother Jamal. The meeting was organized by the minister and in his presence.
As we stepped in, Jamal said that an Egyptian named Issam called him and asked him for $10,000 on behalf of Juma Tarifi, adding that he told him he will.
I then realized that Jamal already know about our meeting with Issam in Cairo.
Q11) whom you think delivered the information?
May be Issam himself or maybe someone else.
Q12) Is it possible that one of the committee members did that?
No, let us bypass this issue.
I faced Jamal with our meeting with Issam and his phone call; he seemed confused but did not answer. Then I asked him about his relation with Belinski and he said that the transfer of ownership was necessary to overcome Israeli security measures.
In reality, I believe that the transfer of ownership complicates more security measures because the cement will be going to Israel not the Palestinian areas.
I then asked him how he managed to get the import permit in one day. ‘In my own ways’ was his answer.
When I asked him about the paper signed by Shahwan, he said it was a fake document
Q13) So, how does Khaeld Islam fits into the picture?
When I met Islam in Ramallah he told me that when we arrive in Cairo he will provide us with important information about the cement issue.
But as we met him in Cairo he did not provide us with any information.
Q14) Do you think that Islam is involved?
In an indirect way, yes. He enjoyed monopoly over importing cement and he needs to explain to the public why he allowed five companies to import cement from Egypt.
Q15) has anyone been punished for his wrong doing?
The junior employees were punished, yet Nofel was promoted from the general director into the Deputy Minister. His promotion was signed by President Arafat.
Q16) why did it take you this long to publish your report?
We did that on purpose. We did not want to publish names without being sure. People are dying resisting the wall and this could turn into a very sensitive issue.
Q17) what were your final recommendations?
We recommended that the files of the four companies involved be send to the state prosecutor.
We recommended holding the Minister of Economics the full responsibility.
We recommended holding the whole cabinet to be indirectly responsible.
Q18) What about President Arafat?
Besides keeping silent about the Monitoring commission report, he is not linked in anyway with the Egyptian cement issue.
Q19) do you expect that the committee recommendations to be implemented?
This time I believe that the issue became an issue of public interest; therefore I expect that the Palestinian Authority will deal with it seriously.
Q20) Were you threatened as you investigated the case?
We were not threatened by any party, but were attacked as persons by few influential groups inside the Palestinian Authority.
We are happy that we managed to uncover this issue and bring it to public awareness.