Yasser Abbas is the second son of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (known as Abu Mazen, after the given name of his oldest son, Mazen, who died following surgery in Qatar some years ago). He is also an international businessman who is based in Palestinian West Bank, but who also travels frequently.
Last December, he spoke to me at length in his office in Ramallah about his businesses (Falcon Holding Company), his views, and the development of Palestine.
A few days later, when Israel launched a massive military attack against Gaza — Operation Cast Lead — from 27 December to 18 January, I took a decision not to publish anything from the interview at the time, in case it might have inadvertently made anyone more vulnerable, or anything worse.
Now, as Fatah and Hamas are on the verge of possible reconciliation — or a possible slide to the worse — Yasser Abbas’ views give us an insight into the mind-set in Ramallah:
(Marian Houk) Question: In every country in the world, of course, Presidents and leaders have relatives who make their living. But the question is – your position gives you so much more influence, how do you decide, for you what’s ethical, and what’s not ethical? How do you make these decisions? How do you decide how you’re going to function?
(Yasser Abbas) Answer: Well, first of all, the first company that I’ve ever established in my life – no, it’s not the first company, I established one in Canada, but maybe the second company I established in my life was in Palestine, in Ramallah, 1996, when Mahmoud Abbas was not the President, not the Prime Minister. He was Secretary-General of the PLO. I decided to open a company, and to go and compete like any other company in the market. And there you go, it happened. And from 1996 until 2000, we had those rosy years that we’ve never seen back again. Everybody was working. So we went and started bidding, and we started making relations with international companies coming from outside, like any other engineering office. So, that’s the way I started, and that’s the way I do business here, in Palestine. I can claim that all my projects that I take are competitive bidding. Nobody has any privilege to me, personally, to come and tell me, “I will give you this”, or “I will give you that”. Nobody has any power to do so. I have no power over anyone, and I mean anyone, to tell them, “This project is mine, nobody touches it”. Or, “I have a concession on such-and-such sector, and nobody touches”. I don’t have that. I challenge, I challenge, though you, publicly, anyone – anyone – who can come to me and point his finger at me to tell me, “I, or we, or such-and-such agency or ministry, gave you the job”, or “I have a concession on any sector of this economy”. I challenge him.
After the coup, Hamas – before they went into the Presidential headquarters – they went into my store, and they robbed it: goods, desks, office equipments, computers, worth half a million dollars. So I had the great lost [the greatest loss], money-wise, out of all the Palestinians, as an individual.
Q: Yours was the greatest loss?
A: Yes – as an individual. I’m talking about, as an individual. Maybe other companies lost much more than me, companies.
Q: What was the company?
A: Falcon, Falcon Tobacco Company – we are the importers of British-American tobacco. We have negotiated this, and it is one company, and it is not the monopoly of the importation of cigarettes in the world. I hope you understand this. British-American is one company. Philip Morris is another company. Gauloise is another company. And all the other importation from Israel is another company. So. it’s a big, broad market. BAT – British-American Tobacco – happens to be one of the largest in the world. We are their importers since nine years. Hamas went into my stores and robbed all my stores, and our loss was greater than any other.
Q: They took cigarettes?
A: Yes, and they sold them in the market. That’s one of the things.
Q: You know, when I was there, right after the coup, first we were met when we arrived in the parking lot by these people who careened up, some of them had black uniforms, and some of them looked like Taliban … with different layers of robes, and vests, and turbans. It was a little bit tense. And then, I asked them where they got the car – and they said, “from Abu Mazen”…
A. You know, they took Abu Mazen’s house.
Q: This is what I wanted to tell you. Then, we went to the house.
A: One important thing, before you go to the house. Every single stone of this house, every single piece of furniture of this house, every little brush of painting on this house, was personal money. It’s ours. We, the sons, paid every single penny of this house. The government – neither Arafat, neither any government or any Authority – paid a penny in this house. It’s solely our house. As much as this house, this apartment he lives in. we paid for it.
Q: I wanted to tell you the experience, we were three journalists, we arrived, there were guards outside …
A: They took you for a tour, they took you to our house …
Q: No, they didn’t. They wouldn’t let anybody go in.
A: And they don’t want to show you the luxury? Come on! You should have gone and seen the luxury, the gold … (laughs uproariously)
Q: Then they decided that I could go in. And, on the corner, there were the olive trees outside, and then you go through …
A: … the walkway to the kitchen?
Q: Yes. And they were sleeping in the guard house …
A: Yes, right inside.
Q: And so I went through where they were sleeping, and went inside. I just went to the garden. I didn’t want to go inside the house. But – it was two or three days after the coup, and after they had entered – and everything was in perfect order, and they wanted me to see it, and to tell you that everything was in perfect order.
Q: Is it in perfect order now?
A: I think so – they only let me in, and not the two men journalists, to see…
Q: If they really mean — They chased us from a small flat that we owned in a building. And they came to the apartment that my friend lives there, and they told him “We want this apartment”. It’s an apartment, for Christ’s sake, $40,000 dollars worth now, or it used to be. “And we are seizing, we are repossessing, what the President and his sons are owning”. They chased me on four containers we used to use as offices on the Gaza power plant. I had forgotten about them. They went all the way to a farm that my accountant’s cousin, they were stored there. I forgot about them completely, me, myself. They are my containers, they are my mobile offices. I forgot that we had them. And the guy called me and said, “They want to seize them”. These guys are a bunch of thieves. They are a gang.
Q: But, I have to say, they were trying …
A: Trying what?
Q: They were trying to deal with the symbolism of the house. It was a very big, enormous, contrast to Mohammed Dahlan’s house, which was by that time down to its final plumbing, they were pulling it out of the ground, they were taking the tiles out of the floor, everything…
A: What about the house of Yasser Arafat? What about the house of Abu Jihad? Do you know a story – it’s important, before I tell you other stories about me – that this house that they seized, that Ismail Haniyeh took refuge in it twice. When he thought that Israeli jets were chasing him, he came to my parents’ house at 3:30 in the morning. To be exact, it was 3:25, because my Mom told me the details. They were still up, and they heard the bell ringing. And my Mom told my Dad, “Hold on, I’ll open the door”. She went to open the door, then she saw Ismail Haniyeh in her face. And then she saw Maher, one of the guards there, and he said to her, “Madam, we have so-and-so coming here”. And she ran back and told my Dad, “Ismail Haniyeh is at the door”. He said, “Tell him to come in. Tell him to come in”. So, she automatically puts the lights on in the living room, for him to come in. She told him, “Come in, come in. Mr. President will come to see you in a minute”. So he came, and he was complaining to my Dad. He took refuge at his house in Gaza, because he was afraid that the Israelis were trying to nail him. And it happened again, three days later. He took refuge there for two or three hours, and then they left in the morning. This is the house that they seized.
Q: But, it was perfect. Whatever damage had occurred, had been repaired, restored. It was in perfect condition.
A: Well, we didn’t have gold – otherwise, they would have taken it – just normal furniture. What were they going to sell it for, $10,000 dollars? They were going to take it in their houses, that’s why. Nothing was there.
Q: They kept it as a symbol.
A: That’s fine. Well, if they meant really not to take it, we have too many people that they are very dear and very close to us in Gaza. And if they really don’t want to take the house, they can really ask – through the channels, that we have – we need one or two people from your people there, that you trust, we want to hand the house back to them, if they really mean good. You wouldn’t go and seize somebody else’s house. Now, if I go to Gaza – no, definitely, I would not be alive, for sure – but will they let me go and stay at my house? Definitely not. If anybody from our side, I tell them, “give the house to so-and-so”, they will? If the intentions are right. No, forget about the past. We have too many stories to tell…I’m too mad that you did not see the house. I wanted you to really see the house, and I wanted you to go to the “luxury” that my parents lived in … By the way, more than one-third of it is unfurnished. It has a bed there, maybe, for my brother if he comes there to sleep. It’s a family house that we built for my father. You know, my father had a dream at one point…
Q: It’s a nice house – the garden was beautiful.
A: Yeah, it’s a house that we really wanted it to be a very nice house for … It’s a family house, that we built for the whole family, for me, my brothers, and my kids, and the grandsons. This is what my father wanted – he wanted a dream house in Gaza. And at one point in time, we joked about it, and we said we will build him a dream house in France, for example. My friends told me, “Are you crazy, you’re going to build a house in Gaza?” And I told him, “Yes, that’s what my Dad wants, that’s what my Dad dreamed about – he wanted a house, a home, and his home was Gaza, even if we are not from Gaza”. We are from Safed, and you know that, from all the way up north.