Geopolitics

At Home With Munib al-Masri, The World's Richest Palestinian

A confidant of Yasser Arafat, al-Masri made billions in oil and gas. But unlike some other super-rich Palestinians, he chose to remain close to his roots in Nablus, where he built a true palace and meets with Hamas and Fatah leaders alike in search of rec

Al-Masri in front of his palace above Nablus
Al-Masri in front of his palace above Nablus
Laurent Zecchini

NABLUS - Munib al-Masri offers a tour of his olive grove, the Islamic gardens with fountains under the stone arch transported from the South of France and the enclosure that houses his gazelles. Comfortable in his Bermuda shorts and faded shirt, al-Masri walks and talks through his 24 hectares of property with no shortage of eloquence or charm. He is accompanied by his eight-year-old grandson, whom he's put in charge of answering his cell phone.

The air is crisp at the top of Mount Gerazim. Al-Masri says it is always like this, even when the summer heat is crushing the rest of the West Bank.

He gestures toward the surrounding hills. His neighbors include a Jewish settlement and an early-warning center for the Israeli army. In the valley below is Nablus, dubbed the "terrorism capital" during the second Intifada, and formerly known as Shechem of the Samaritans and of the Jews, as frequently mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy. The small Arab-Jewish community of roughly 700 people lives on this still-sacred mount believed to have been spared during the deluge.

The temple that was built in 330 B.C. no longer exists, most likely destroyed by the Byzantine emperor Xenon. In its place, al-Masri has built his own personal temple, an extravagant folly inspired by the 16th-century Palladian villas outside Venice. The cupola, which resembles the one in St. Peter's basilica in the Vatican and the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, can be seen for miles away.

Al-Masri loathes the term "billionaire," not to mention the title of the "world's richest Palestinian." When confronted with the fact that serious people estimate his fortune at around $5 billion, he says he doesn't know how much he's worth. "I have worked a lot," he says. "I gave much to Palestine. I am a simple man, and am rich from being a Palestinian nationalist."

A close companion of Yasser Arafat, al-Masri made his fortune in oil and gas. He is the head of the Padico investment holding group, which controls 35 companies that include the sectors of telecommunications, construction, tourism, energy, environment, banking, finance and agriculture. He also founded the Edgo group (industry, commerce, health, education, distribution, etc.), which oversees 29 companies across the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America.

A philanthropist, an art sponsor, tapped three times to serve as Palestinian prime minister – he refused each time – and an intermediary between Fatah and Hamas, al-Masri has lived many lives. At 77, he now wants to focus on Palestinian reconciliation, and "doesn't want to die" before witnessing the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

American wife, Byzantine church

Born in Nablus, he studied in the United States earning a degree in petroleum geology at the University of Texas, where he met his American wife, Angela. It was there, at age 19, that he imagined "Beit Filistine," or the "House of Palestine," which he built on Mount Gerazim, importing almost all the construction materials from France. The residence, he says, proves to the world and to the Israelis that Palestinians have the courage, the pride, "the resistance and the perseverance" to meet such a challenge.

In the morning, when al-Masri walks through the vast hall, he sometimes stops in the middle, in front of a marble statue of Hercules directly below the 80-meter-high "Dome of Tolerance." He says that Hercules symbolizes the spirit of the Palestinians. "Arafat used to say that we are the most resistant people in the world," he adds.

The construction of al-Masri's palace was completed in 2000 during the Intifada. While digging, construction workers unearthed a 5th century Byzantine church, which al-Masri preserved. In the rooms on the ground floor, alongside Picassos and Modiglianis, are tapestries, silver pieces, Louis XIV sofas, a wooden staircase from Italy and a chimney from Versailles. The park, where 10,000 olive trees are planted, was laid out by 35,000 trucks that removed rocks and fertile soil.

When asked why such a Baroque project, al-Masri answers serenely: "I could live in London, Geneva or New York, but I prefer Nablus." Perhaps because "Beit Filistine" is a central location for working on Palestinian reconciliation. On the day we met, three Hamas officials from the West Bank came to discuss an accord announced in May but effectively dead on arrival.

For him, extremists "are the product of oppression, of anger and the denial of dignity." The Israelis must recognize Palestinian independence now, he insists. "Otherwise, 15 years from now, they will be desperate for a Palestinian Mandela, because Israel will have become an apartheid state."

In early July, al-Masri received a group of Israeli officers from the West Bank coordination unit. He offered dates and baklava, noting that the Palestinian sweets were sent to him by his "friend," Khaled Mishaal, the head of the Hamas political bureau, in exile in Damascus. "Khaled sends greetings," he told his disconcerted guests.

While showing us out, the "simple man" from Mount Gerazim offered us parting gifts: a single lemon and organic tomato from his garden.

Read more from Le Monde in French

photo - wikipedia

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ