Abbas Aide Caught With Contraband Phones

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- A top aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was caught at a border crossing with 3,000 contraband cell phones in his car, bringing embarrassment for an administration already struggling with sagging popularity over stalled peace talks with Israel.

The aide, interim Palestinian President Rauhi Fattouh, said Wednesday he was unaware of the illicit phones and cigarettes found by Israeli officials and blamed his driver of several years.

But with cell phones and cigarettes selling in the West Bank for a premium over their cost in neighboring Jordan, the smuggling case could be a new snag for Abbas' Fatah movement. A voter revolt against official corruption led to Fatah's election defeat by the Islamic militant Hamas two years ago.

In a statement late Wednesday, Abbas' office said Fattouh had been suspended from his duties at his request. Abbas had no further comment.

The incident took place Tuesday at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank, said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military's top liaison with the Palestinians.

Fattouh was crossing by car from Jordan, a privilege granted by Israel to only a small group of Palestinian officials. The VIP status enables officials to move without being searched by Israeli forces, while ordinary Palestinians must cross by bus and undergo extensive searches.

Lerner said Israeli inspectors decided to search Fattouh's car anyway, because they had "some indication of the situation." The inspectors found about 3,000 cell phones and 20 cartons of cigarettes, Lerner said.

He said Fattouh's driver was also questioned and both men were released. The driver was later detained by Palestinian intelligence officers.

The case comes at a time when support for Abbas and Fatah is sliding, according to a poll released this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, an independent think tank.

Fatah would still be ahead of Hamas if parliament elections were held today, but the gap has narrowed from a comfortable 18 percentage points in December to just seven points, the center said.

In the presidential competition, Abbas has lost a slight lead and is now tied with Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, according to the survey of 1,270 people, which had an error margin of three percentage points.

Pollster Khalil Shekaki attributed Fatah's slide to, among other things, the lack of progress in peace talks. But he noted Wednesday that corruption was a key factor in Fatah's election defeat in 2005.

Since then, Abbas' prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has won international praise for cleaning up government spending since Yasser Arafat's chaotic rule. On Wednesday, the U.S. announced it was paying $150 million in aid directly to the Palestinian Authority in a show of faith in Fayyad, a respected economist.

Independent legislator Azmi Shoabi, an anti-corruption campaigner, said Palestinians now hold their public officials to a higher standard than a few years ago.

He said Palestinians have taken note of Israel's increasingly tough campaign to weed out corruption and abuse of privilege, a reference to such cases as sending a son of former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon to prison for illegal campaign practices.

"They want to see such things in their society," Shoabi said.


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