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Anti-corruption campaigner is headache for Abbas

In this photo taken, Tuesday, March 9, 2010, Fahmi Shabaneh talks during an interview with the Associated Press at his home in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. After getting a top Palestinian official suspended over an embarrassing sex tape, self-styled anti-corruption campaigner Fahmi Shabaneh feels unstoppable. The former Palestinian intelligence agent is already zooming in on his next targets, including his former boss and a top Islamic court judge. In this photo taken, Tuesday, March 9, 2010, Fahmi Shabaneh talks during an interview with the Associated Press at his home in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. After getting a top Palestinian official suspended over an embarrassing sex tape, self-styled anti-corruption campaigner Fahmi Shabaneh feels unstoppable. The former Palestinian intelligence agent is already zooming in on his next targets, including his former boss and a top Islamic court judge. (AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
By Karin Laub and Dalia Nammari
Associated Press Writers / March 22, 2010

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RAMALLAH, West Bank—After getting a top Palestinian official suspended over an embarrassing sex tape, self-styled anti-corruption campaigner Fahmi Shabaneh feels unstoppable.

The former Palestinian intelligence agent is already zooming in on his next targets, including his former boss and a top Islamic court judge. He also set up a Web site so ordinary Palestinians can send him evidence of official misconduct, thievery and nepotism. "I'm going to the end," he said of his unprecedented crusade.

Detractors say Shabaneh, fired from his intelligence job in 2008, wants to settle scores and is waging a smear campaign at Israel's bidding to weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has seen a slight drop in his popularity since the claims began. Even anti-corruption activists point out he has offered little evidence for some of his claims.

Regardless, the brash gadfly has tapped into long-standing popular resentment of the West Bank's ruling class, and most Palestinians believe him, not the public servants he has in his sights, according to a recent poll.

Official corruption was rampant under the late Yasser Arafat, with little oversight over how hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid were spent, and the subsequent Abbas administration has won praise from the international community for cleaning up public spending.

Some Palestinian Authority officials are believed to have been forced to pay back funds stolen in the Arafat years. However, anti-corruption campaigners complain that many were never punished and that nepotism remains widespread.

"It remained an open wound that is eating the flesh of the Palestinian political system," said analyst Hani al-Masri.

Shabaneh, 48, burst onto the scene two months ago when he gave the videotape of Abbas aide Rafiq Husseini undressing in a woman's bedroom to an Israeli TV station, which broadcast it. Husseini has denied wrongdoing but has been suspended pending an investigation.

The footage -- part of an alleged influence-for-sex scheme -- was shot by Shabaneh when he was still a senior Palestinian intelligence agent. Shabaneh said he informed Abbas of the video at the time, but was dismissed instead of action being taken against Husseini.

Shabaneh is the first Palestinian Authority insider to air dirty laundry with a steady stream of allegations that have kept public debate focused on corruption. In the past, scandals would fizzle as politicians closed ranks to protect their own.

"People are thirsty for such information," said Bassam Ahmed, 60, a car repair shop owner from the West Bank city of Nablus and a frequent visitor to Shabaneh's Web site. "It is possible that Shabaneh's stories are moving things."

Shabaneh's claims seem to have hurt Abbas politically, said Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, who measured a further four-point dip in Abbas' eroding popularity and attributed it to the new corruption charges.

Abbas, while not accused of being corrupt, is viewed as ignoring the transgressions of some of those around him. In Shikaki's survey, 72 percent of 1,270 respondents said they had heard about the new allegations or seen the videotape, and that two-thirds of those believe the allegations to be accurate. The poll had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

Abbas, in keeping with his aloof style, has not spoken about the issue in public.

However, Abbas has appointed a new committee to investigate complaints submitted by ordinary people.

"Everyone can be held accountable and everyone is equal (before the law)," promised former legislator Rafiq Natche, the head of the committee, denying that the creation of the panel was linked to Shabaneh's persistent claims.

Shabaneh acknowledged that he wouldn't have gone public had he not been fired.

"You wouldn't find me here," he said in an interview in his home in an Arab neighborhood of Israeli-controlled east Jerusalem. "I still would have been in charge of the file of corruption, fighting it from the inside."

But he insists his motives are pure.

In Jerusalem, Shabaneh is out of reach of Palestinian authorities who accuse him of selling land to non-Palestinians, a charge Shabaneh denied, saying it was as a crude attempt to discredit him. While Israel still controls all of the West Bank, the Palestinians have limited autonomy in West Bank cities.

Ironically, Shabaneh is currently on trial in Israel on charges that he is a member of the Palestinian security service, in violation of an Israeli law that bans Palestinian residents of Jerusalem from engaging in such activity.

For now, Shabaneh is not setting foot in the West Bank and security cameras monitor those approaching his gated home.

He said hundreds have sent comments, most encouraging, some angry, to his Web site. Several dozen have made specific complaints he plans to look into.

Prominent on the home page are pictures of three public officials, including Husseini, with their faces crossed out by large red Xs to show that their cases have been handled.

Two other photographs are on the page -- of top Islamic court judge Taysir Tamimi and of Shabaneh's former boss, ex-intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi -- but without markings. That's a signal they'll be his next targets, Shabaneh said.

He has refused to detail any allegations against them, however. Shabaneh has claimed he has damning documents, but when pressed, declined to show them.

Tamimi denied wrongdoing. "It's all lies," he said in a phone interview. "You know we repudiated Shabaneh. He says things that have no value. May God help us all."

Veteran anti-corruption campaigner Azmi Shuaibi said Shabaneh is hurting the cause because he has offered little evidence.

"Spreading scandal is not fighting corruption," the former West Bank legislator said.

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Associated Press Writer Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem contributed to this report.