PA President Abbas accused of bowing to American and Israeli pressure
More than 20 former Palestinian prisoners protested in Ramallah on Thursday, hoping to reverse the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) move to cut off financial payments to 279 individuals previously convicted of crimes and jailed in Israel.
Several prisoners told The Media Line that the prisoners were not paid since the beginning of Ramadan [the Islamic holy month of fasting].” Calling it a “political decision” by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Minister for Prisoners Affairs Issa Qaraqe confirmed that no one discussed the matter with him ahead of time.
Irrespective of the PA’s critical financial situation, this marks the first instance it has taken such a step. The Palestinian leadership has always paid millions of shekels each month to prisoners and their families, as well as to Arab-Israelis.
Jailed in Israel for security offenses, the prisoners became a national calling cry in the wake of the 2011 exchange deal between Israel and Hamas; in which Israel swap more than 1000 Hamas prisoners for soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held captive in Gaza for five years. The issue has become so central to the Palestinian cause that last year former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad tripled monthly payments to the prisoners.
But not all view the practice positively.
U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly had a heated discussion about the matter during a visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas earlier this year. After a subsequent meeting between the leaders, Trump said that the PA’s payments to prisoners was hampering the peace process, and claimed, “There cannot be lasting peace unless the Palestinian leaders speak in a unified voice against incitement to violence and hate.”
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer later confirmed that, “The president raised concerns about the payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed acts of terror and to their families.”
Publicly, the Palestinian leadership rejected Washington’s demand to stop paying prisoners, with Nabil Shaath, Foreign Affairs Adviser to Abbas, describing it as “absurd”.
“That would be like asking Israel to stop paying its soldiers,” he stated.
It appears, however, that the Palestinian leadership has indeed made a concession to Trump.
But there is a catch: The former prisoners whose payments were cut off are members of Hamas, which rules Gaza and remains bitterly at odds with Abbas’ Fatah party.
Sulaiman Abu Sekh, a former Palestinian inmate, told The Media Line that he was surprised that his 6,000 NIS monthly salary was cut off, confirming that the Prisoners’ Affairs office was unaware beforehand. “In this case,” he continues, “it is likely a result of American and Israeli pressure on the PA to sideline Hamas.”
The former prisoners have been demonstrating for 26 days in a row, some saying their current situation is worse than the years spent in Israeli jails. “This month is one of the most difficult of my life,” Zakaria Al Gesrawi, 43, a former prisoner of 19 years, told The Media Line.
“Our tent was at the entrance of the prime minister’s office, but they kicked us out on Eid al-Fitrir night [a Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan]. I have commitments, a family to pay for, and kids to raise. What am I supposed to do now?” he added.
According to Mansour Shamasna, 47, who spent 16 years imprisoned in Israel, being cut off financially has both a physical and psychological impact. “I was getting paid 5,000 NIS, and when I was released the PA made me sign a paper to make sure I didn’t get another job or any payments from another party. Now I don’t have a salary and I don’t know what to do.”
“We have defended our country and spent plenty of time in Israeli jails,” he affirms to The Media Line, “and the price is to be treated like terrorists?”
Despite the decision, Palestinian officials emphasized to The Media Line that this was only a phase and that a solution coming on the way. But the former prisoners remain dissatisfied, threatening to escalate their protests, and even planning to relocate outside the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah.
“Egypt promoted the prisoner exchange deal with Israel,” says former prisoner Sulaiman Abu Sekh, “they must help us somehow. “I spent 48 Eids behind bars; it is a shame that I spent this Eid protesting for my rights instead of spending it with my family for the first time for years.”