The Palestinian leadership risks losing widespread financial and political support over continued payments to prisoners
Israeli Defense Minister Avidgor Liberman this week laid bare to senior parliamentarians something already known, but in such great detail so as to raise concern about the future prospects for peace in the region. According to internal Palestinian data presented to the Israeli parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Palestinian Authority—led by ostensibly “moderate” President Mahmoud Abbas—paid some $350 million to tens of thousands of terrorists and their families in 2017. As made stark by Israel’s defense chief, the longer the prison sentence—and the more severe the crime—the greater the stipend disbursed by the PA.
Specifically, Palestinians jailed in Israel between 3 and 5 years receive about $600 per month, approximately equal to the average wage in the West Bank. Those sentenced to twenty or more years are paid nearly $3000 per month—more than the average salary in Israel—in perpetuity; that is, unless they are married, have children, or come from eastern Jerusalem, in which case they are eligible for monetary bonuses.
“The minute the amount of the payment is decided according to the severity of the crime and the length of the sentence…that [is tantamount to encouraging] terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens,” Liberman asserted. “There is nothing that better illustrates the PA’s support for terrorism. We must stop this.”
To this end, Liberman is drafting a bill that would deduct the amount paid to terrorists from the taxes and tariffs Israel collects on behalf of the PA and then transfers to Ramallah as agreed upon in the 1993 Oslo Accords—an estimated $125-$150 million monthly.
Liberman’s prospective legislation is based on the American Taylor Force Act, named after a U.S. citizen killed in a Palestinian terror attack in Israel, which was recently passed by the House of Representatives. If approved by the Senate and subsequently signed by President Donald Trump, the law would cut-off aid to the PA unless it stops its so-called “pay-for-slay” policy.
Addressing these developments, Ashraf al-Ajrami, former Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, painted the controversy in shades of grey, explaining to The Media Line that “the prisoners issue is very sensitive in Palestinian society, as it is related to almost every family. More than 800,000 Palestinians have been arrested by Israeli authorities,” he continued, “and the matter is connected to the occupation and the national struggle.”
In this respect, al-Ajrami contended that the PA cannot stop paying salaries to prisoners because doing so would provide fodder to extremist elements, which would be more than happy to step in. “Hamas and Iran, for example, would support the prisoners if the PA did not. Also, if they are not provided for, their families might likewise turn to violence. Therefore,” he elaborated, “I don’t think that the PA has the choice of reconsidering its position even amid American threats to cut-off aid. No Palestinian leader could alter his calculus because we are talking of so many of people. The PA would lose control otherwise.”
While al-Ajrami noted that the level of violence in Palestinian society had decreased since the PA started paying salaries to prisoners in 2007, Israeli officialdom has long blamed the policy, coupled with rampant anti-Israel incitement promulgated through official PA organs, for the steady stream of terror attacks emanating from self-governed Palestinian territories.
Indeed, just hours after Defense Minister Liberman’s presentation, news surfaced of the murder of Rabbi Raziel Shevach, a father of six, in a West Bank drive-by shooting. In response, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tweeted, “Hamas praise[d] the killers and PA laws will provide them financial rewards. Look no further [as] to why there is no peace.” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely later thanked the envoy for the White House’s “partnership in the fight against terror and understanding that the Palestinian Authority’s support of terrorists lies at the root of the [conflict].”
Some observers posit that the current priority assigned to forging—or forcing—unity with Hamas, which overtly calls for the Jewish state’s destruction, is itself suggestive of the PLO/PA’s ongoing acceptance of terrorism as a means to achieve statehood. They argue that the PA regularly praises “martyrs” and has named schools, streets and public buildings after the cold-blooded murderers of Israelis.
For his part, Abbas, while publicly advocating “non-violent resistance,” was criticized for doing little to quell the 2015-16 so-called “Stabbing Intifada,” during which he reinforced the rallying cry that “al-Aqsa is in danger” by asserting that Jews were desecrating the iconic mosque with their “filthy feet.” In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the PA responded by calling for “days of rage,” which inevitably descended into deadly clashes throughout the West Bank.
“The PA could do more in terms of the atmosphere and Israel should demand that it make changes, for example, to its education system,” Dan Meridor, a former Israeli deputy prime minister, told The Media Line. However, he qualified, despite Abbas having served for years as Arafat’s number two, “the current PA leader does not directly advocate for terrorism and has shown a willingness to cooperate with Israel, especially in the security sphere.”
For Meridor, the issue of payments to Palestinian prisoners is somewhat beside the point, deflecting focus away from the greater imperative that Israel separate from the Palestinians in order to prevent a “one-state reality. The status quo cannot be maintained,” he asserted, “so Israel needs to make its positions clear and, if they are rejected or the PA refuses to negotiate, then the government needs to take unilateral action, which could include delineating borders.”
Jerusalem nevertheless continues to emphasize the issue, with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu taking journalists to task Wednesday night at an annual New Year’s event for the press. There, the premier, somewhat aggressively, asked for a show of hands of those who over the past year reported on the exorbitant payments made to Palestinian prisoners, subsequently responding with indignation when the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of reporters present remained cross-armed.
Netanyahu appears to have both time and leverage on his side as the PA faces the immediate risk of losing not only vital U.S. financial support, but also the unconditional political backing of regional countries. Various Mideast nations, most notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, are increasingly struggling to contain the boomerang effect from years of tolerating—if not sponsoring in Riyadh’s case—terrorism. This comes amid a broader rapprochement between the Sunni Muslim world and Israel based on the shared interest of curbing Iran’s expansionism, but also driven by a growing acknowledgment of the Jewish state’s potential contributions in the fields of defense, hi-tech, science and many others.
As such, the Palestinian Authority appears to be at a crossroads, necessitating a reexamination of whether its core policies serve to advance, or hinder, the Palestinian cause. The course chosen will be largely contingent on the PLO/PA’s ability to sever its historical roots to terrorism and instead begin sowing the seeds of peace.