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Report: 2012 sexual harassment probe into top PA minister closed after ‘hush payment’

A 2012 sexual harassment probe into a senior Palestinian official and potential successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was reportedly shelved following a $100,000 “hush payment.”

The revelation was made in a profile of PA Civil Affairs Minister and secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee, Hussein al-Sheikh, which was published by Foreign Policy on Monday.

The US news magazine interviewed 75 government officials and other figures familiar with al-Sheikh’s rise to one of the most powerful positions in West Bank politics, where he is one of Abbas’s closest advisers. The profile paints a picture of a complex figure within a system plagued by corruption, but someone appreciated by both Israel and the United States due to his relatively pragmatic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Israeli security establishment was so invested in al-Sheikh’s success that it reached out to a Haaretz reporter planning to publish an article about the sexual harassment allegation and pleaded with him to kill the story, Foreign Policy revealed.

The reporter refused to comply and published a story describing how al-Sheikh verbally harassed a young IT engineer at his ministry and proceeded to touch her even after she rebuffed him. The woman then slapped him, shouted at him and left the office. Her husband later filed a formal complaint against al-Sheikh that was subsequently withdrawn following the payment.

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Al-Sheikh told Foreign Policy that the story was “negative propaganda against me” and declined to respond to the specific allegations.

Hussein al-Sheikh at his office in Ramallah, Monday, June 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Former IDF Military Intelligence chief Tamir Hayman described al-Sheikh to Foreign Policy as someone who “began as part of the people but has become totally isolated. For large portions of the public, he represents everything that has gone wrong with the Palestinian Authority: out of touch, corrupt, and tied to Israel.”

Al-Sheikh was born in Ramallah in 1960 and served time in an Israeli prison during the late 1970s and early 1980s for alleged involvement in a cell that targeted Israelis. The PA minister told Foreign Policy that he wasn’t personally involved in any violence and the IDF said it had lost the records from al-Sheikh’s military trial.

While incarcerated, he learned Hebrew and learned about Israel. After his release, he rose up the ranks in the Palestinian Authority security service and later in politics, using his language skills to take positions that involved interaction with Israel.

In the 1990s, a former IDF military governor of Ramallah invited al-Sheikh to give a lecture at a Tel Aviv high school about the importance of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, Foreign Policy reported.

In recent years, al-Sheikh has been seen as a particularly important figure in Palestinian politics due to his proximity to the 88-year-old Abbas.

But former Fatah official-turned-critic Nasser al-Kidwa credited al-Sheikh’s rise to “a particular ability to kiss ass, lie, brown-nose, and bullshit… And always to convince Abu Mazen that he’s God—‘Your points are amazing, Mr. President.’”

File: Then-coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, left, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh sign an agreement to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15, 2017. (Courtesy COGAT)

“[Al-Sheikh] is a little bug beside [Abbas]. If Abu Mazen changes his position tomorrow, al-Sheikh will be over,” al-Kidwa told Foreign Policy, using Abbas’s nom de guerre.

In the meantime, though, US officials told the news site that they prefer working with al-Sheikh as he’s more matter-of-fact.

One US administration official compared al-Sheikh’s approach to Abbas’s who pontificated “ad nauseam for 25 minutes before he let [US President Joe] Biden utter a word,” during a 2021 Bethlehem meeting.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh gives similarly long speeches to visiting officials, the official said, while al-Sheikh is different. “When you go into a room with him, you can tell he’s really, truly eager for solutions,” the administration official told Foreign Policy. Another US official said Biden’s administration has relied on the “Abbas whisperer” al-Sheikh “when things are getting really tense.”

Israeli officials have agreed, with one retired senior Israeli officer calling al-Sheikh “our man in Ramallah.”

Israeli officials told Foreign Policy that they’re aware of the allegations of corruption against the Palestinian Authority, particularly regarding the process for acquiring permits to enter Israel, which is run out of al-Sheikh’s office. However, they are reticent to interfere so long as the PA continues cracking down on Palestinian terror groups in the West Bank, as it has done for decades.

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, left, meets with Palestinian Authority Minister of Civilian Affairs Hussein al-Sheikh in Washington DC, on October 4, 2022. (US State Department/Twitter)

“The Palestinians tell us: ‘If the situation wasn’t comfortable for Israel, you would put a stop to it’… At the end of the day, it doesn’t sound nice to say, but they’re right. If there’s no terrorism from them, who cares,” Kobi Lavy, a former Palestinian affairs adviser in the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration unit, told Foreign Policy.

Biden administration officials are aware that al-Sheikh isn’t particularly well-liked among Palestinians. “He is about as popular with the Palestinian people as the Shah was in January 1979,” the administration official told Foreign Policy, referring to the Iranian leader felled by the Islamic Revolution that year.

Nonetheless, administration officials sought to improve his standing by inviting al-Sheikh to Washington last year. “He wanted to come, obviously, to bolster his own credibility inside the PA, and our desire was to let him come and give him some street cred.”

“He’s trying to keep this whole crumbling tower standing,” the administration official told Foreign Policy, justifying Washington’s reliance on al-Sheikh. “He understands our limits and the Israelis’ limits.”

For his part, al-Sheikh told Foreign Policy: “The Authority isn’t able to deliver a political horizon for the people. The Authority isn’t able to resolve the people’s financial and economic problems from the occupation, but what’s the alternative to the PA? Chaos and violence.”

Explaining his more incrementalist approach, al-Sheikh said: “We need to narrow the wide gap between us, as however small the accomplishment is, it is important.”