PA Minister Allegedly Attempted to Bury Sexual Harassment Claims

Excerpts from the testimony of the female employee who claims the Palestinian minister harrassed her also reveal attempts by the PA to keep the case off the public agenda.

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The sexual harassment allegations against Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Fatah member and the person in charge of the civilian and security coordination with Israel, are continuing to kick up a storm in the Palestinian Authority.

Haaretz, which broke the story at the beginning of the week, has received excerpts from the testimony of the complainant, a computer engineer in al-Sheikh’s office. The testimony reveals persistent attempts by the PA security apparatus to bury the complaint filed by the engineer and her husband and to keep the case off the public agenda.

The complainant’s husband is the director of the Office for Civil Affairs. Six months ago, he requested that his wife be transferred to work with him in the office, since she was working outside of Ramallah and had a long journey every day to her workplace. He noted that he was able to secure her a position as a computer engineer there, in accordance with her education and experience.

The husband said he avoided presenting his wife to al-Sheikh when she joined the team because of the minister’s problematic reputation regarding his past relations with women.

The incident allegedly took place three weeks ago in al-Sheikh’s office in Ramallah. The husband said that al-Sheikh encountered his wife, whom he described as “a beautiful woman,” and asked her to come to his office to fix his computer. When she entered the office, al-Sheikh told the complainant she was “the most beautiful woman in the office,” to which she replied: “You could be my father and I [could be] your daughter.”

According to the complainant, Al-Sheikh did not stop and continued to compliment the woman on her beautiful hair and eyes. When she sat down next to the computer, he stood behind her and tried to kiss her and touch her by force. She slapped him, shouted and left the office. After that, he tried to persuade her to return to his office to repair the computer, but she refused, the husband said.

Her husband claimed that by this time, al-Sheikh understood that the engineer was his wife. Nevertheless, this did not stop the minister from continuing to harass her with numerous sexual text messages. One of these read, “I want you,” “I love you,” and “My soul is in you.” After the worker told her husband about the incident, he went straight to al-Sheikh’s office, but the minister was not there.

The husband knocked on the office door and threatened to hurt the minister. After a short while he received a message from al-Sheikh saying: “I ask you to calm down, you will get anything you ask for.”

The couple claimed that since the day of the assault, they have been pursued by al-Sheikh’s family and the Palestinian security forces. The husband said that last Wednesday, a number of the minister’s family members came to their home, wanting to hurt the husband and damage the house.

The husband, who was at Bir Zeit University at the time, hurried home and a quarrel ensued, in which al-Sheikh’s brothers threatened to hurt him if he did not retract the accusations he made against the minister in his testimony.

The husband says that he told one of the brothers that he is willing to die, and that he is unwilling to give up the right to defend his wife. According to the husband, the brother replied, “No problem, dogs, you will die.” The family members continued to threaten the husband and told him, “This time we came to warn you, next time there will be no talk.”

Following the incident, the complainant’s family came to the couple’s home, and the worker told her father that Hussein al-Sheikh had attacked her. On Wednesday evening, military intelligence officials arrived at their home and detained the husband. They started questioning him at approximately 7 P.M. and continued until 4 A.M. The husband told close associates that military intelligence officials tried to convince him retract his version of events.

“The officer told me that he has clear instructions to close the case today by any means,” he said, adding that “he pressured me to claim that Mohammed Dahlan was the person who led me to invent the story. They said I’m harming Fatah. And what about the things al-Sheikh did? Didn’t he harm Fatah?” Dahlan, a Fatah member and former senior PA official, is a rival of al-Sheikh and PA President Mahmoud Abbas. According to the husband, his wife was offered a general manager position in return for retracting her testimony.

The worker’s relatives were also taken in for questioning, during which they were also pressured to remain silent about the case and to sign a document declaring that they believe al-Sheikh, who denied that any sexual harassment had occurred. The husband added that his wife’s relatives were afraid that she would be harmed, and signed the document. The minister’s close associates, however, claimed that the worker’s family met with al-Sheikh this week and believed his version of events.

The husband told those close to him that after he was questioned al-Sheikh sent him a message in which he called him a “spy” and promised: “I will deal with you.”

Sources close to the minister claimed that the woman’s relatives met with the minister recently and believe his story. It is her husband who is trying to extort the PA through his wife’s complaint, they charged, and he has changed his version of events several times.

The couple is currently staying in Jordan; they have turned off their cellular phones and are waiting for Abbas to return to the West Bank from his visit to the U.S. Al-Sheikh has completely denied his involvement in the case. Al-Sheikh posted a status on Facebook on Tuesday morning, saying that he will hold “whoever is behind this campaign accountable,” within the limits of the law. The Palestinian minister explained that he cannot keep silent any longer over the false rumors being spread against him.

Al-Sheikh denied the allegations, but he provided no further details and said no formal committee of inquiry had been established. Abbas’ Fatah movement also issued a statement denying that such committee had been appointed.

Despite al-Sheikh’s claims that no formal complaint has been made on the issue, the worker’s husband claims that he submitted a formal complaint to the official in charge of corruption in the Palestinian Authority, Rafiq al-Natsheh, head of the PA’s anti-corruption commission. A Haaretz investigation found that the complaint was served to al-Natsheh’s office, and registered by Akram Abu al-Khatib. Concurrently, a complaint was submitted to the office of the Palestinian state comptroller, Samir Abuznaid. Senior Fatah and PA officials confirmed to Haaretz that an investigation is underway, but said publication of any details could harm the probe.

Al-Sheikh was once suspected of sexually abusing a minor. When the suspicions first arose, the suspect responded by saying it was a conspiracy by associates of Mohammed Dahlan, a former senior PA official now openly at odds with Abbas.

On Sunday, Al-Sheikh reiterated this claim with regard to the new complaint. “It’s an effort by Dahlan’s group to frame me,” he told Haaretz. “They’re trying to harm our image. It’s all rumors. Where is the complaint? Where is the complaint of the women who went to the police? This whole story is lies and rubbish. There’s no investigation.”

Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum