As long ago as 1977, Time called the PLO "probably the richest, best-financed revolutionary-terrorist organization in history" - and that was well before its real financial build-up took place. Today one can drop the "probably" and say that the PLO stands by itself in the accumulation of wealth.
The size and extent of PLO wealth has attracted a great deal of attention, and a number of estimates have been offered on total PLO asserts. Forbes has the lowest estimate of PLO holdings, $1 billion. Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy, authors of Inside the PLO, place 1989 assets somewhere between $8 and $14 billion. Others go beyond mere numbers and enter the realm of hyperbole. Walid Jumblatt, the Druze militia leader, declared in 1986 that Arafat "has enough money to buy half of Lebanon, not to say all of it."
In response to these speculations, the PLO has not breathed a word about assets. But in 1987 it did go public with a budget, which it pegged at $197 million. However, like Soviet budgets over the past decades, this figure should be seen as very partial, representing the official portion of the income. The unofficial portion, variously known as the Chairman's Secret Fund, or the Fatah fund, is though to be much larger. Abu Musa, a one-time ally of Arafat 's, put it this way in 1983: "Saudi Arabia gives him tens, hundreds of millions, to corrupt, not to develop the revolution. It does not appear in the books. It is much more than the official contributions."
These huge sums come from several sources:
(1) The Arab states and the Soviet bloc have offered extraordinary support to the PLO.
(2) Palestinians living in Arab countries are required to pay a tax on income to the PLO that ranges between three and six percent of their salaries.
(3) The PLO ran an autonomous state-within-a-state in Lebanon between 1970 and 1982 [and] engaged in a great number of commercial activities.
(4) Diverse illegal activities are a major source of funds, including drug-trafficking, protection rackets, robberies, training of foreign terrorists, and hijackings.
(5) Individual supporters, almost all Palestinian, make contributions.
(6) Interest and dividends from billions in assets.
The Palestine National Fund, sometimes called the PLO's finance ministry, manages its capital by tapping the skills and networks Palestinians have built up, using state-of the- art computers. Investments are made around the world, but especially in the West. Investments in the West are always covered by front names. Gold reserves have been established, too.
Most investments are apolitical business deals, but not all. "Friendship" projects include factories and farms in places like Syria, Guinea, the Maldive Islands and Poland. Funds are on occasion loaned to allies in need, such as $12 million to Nicaragua in 1981 and $100 million to Iraq in 1986.
Finally, a few words about PLO holdings in the United States. The only known official PLO bank account in this country is at the Chemical Bank branch at the United Nations, which presumably is used to pay for staff salaries. Fearing liens and other legal problems, the PLO has gone out of its way not to own properties officially. Atallah Atallah, the PLO's former intelligence chief, has observed that Arafat uses 'Mafia techniques [designed' not to leave a trace," and this comment certainly applies to PLO dealings in the U.S. To take one prominent example, the building at 115 East 65th Street in Manhattan, which houses the PLO's observer mission to the United Nations, is formally owned not by the PLO but by Zehdi Terzi, its observer.
Other properties are even better hidden. The most important of them by far is the Arab Bank, with some $14 billion in assets, which is owned by the PLO and handles the organization's working accounts.