RAMALLAH — International pressure on the Palestinian Authority to halt payments to the families of Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including those convicted of deadly terror attacks, could trigger a political crisis, rights groups say.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is caught between pressure from US President Donald Trump’s administration and a potential backlash from Palestinians, most of whom view their prisoners as heroes.
Those killed carrying out attacks against Israelis are regularly venerated as “martyrs.”
Palestinian officials say some 850,000 people have spent time in Israeli prisons in the 50 years since Israel gained control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and the Hamas terror group seized control of the coastal enclave in a bloody coup against Abbas’s Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
Israel currently detains some 6,500 Palestinians for a range of offenses, including a number of deadly terror attacks.
It says making payments to the families of attackers encourages further violence, accusing the Palestinian leadership of incitement amid a wave of attacks that began in 2015 and has persisted at a low simmer since.
But Palestinians say such payments are a key source of income for families who have in many cases lost their main breadwinner.
They are also symbolically important after decades of yearning for elusive statehood and struggle against Israel.
A recent poll showed that 91 percent of Palestinians oppose suspending stipends to those in Israeli jails for security-related offenses.
“To lay a finger on the prisoners’ rights is to attack the Palestinian struggle,” said Helmi al-Aaraj, director general of the Center for Defense of Liberties and Civil Rights.
Since 2004, Palestinian law has stipulated that the government pay allowances to families of those jailed for terror attacks and activities against Israel and Israelis.
The legislation obliges the Palestinian authorities to ensure “a dignified life” to inmates and ex-prisoners by “guaranteeing their economic rights and those of their families.”
“If their rights are eroded we are heading for a real crisis in Palestinian society and in due course toward an explosion,” Shawan Jabarin of Palestinian rights group Al-Haq told AFP.
‘US and Israeli pressure’
The Palestinian Authority has until now made regular payments to prisoners’ families based on the length of their sentence.
They range from $400 per month for relatives of prisoners incarcerated for up to three years, rising to $2,200 for family members of those sentenced to 18-20 years.
Palestinian sources involved with prisoner affairs told AFP on condition of anonymity that the PA had suspended payments to families of 277 prisoners and ex-prisoners at the beginning of June. No Palestinian official has so far commented and the PA’s silence is encouraging speculation.
“There is US and Israeli pressure to stop paying stipends to prisoners and their families,” Aaraj said.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in June told US lawmakers that Abbas had agreed to stop payments to attackers.
“They have changed their policy, at least I have been informed they’ve changed that policy,” Tillerson said.
Israel however said it saw no evidence of such a decision and Palestinian officials would not confirm it.
After a Palestinian assailant fatally stabbed an Israeli border guard Hadas Malka in June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on world leaders to “demand the immediate cessation of Palestinian Authority payments to the families of terrorists.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has labeled the Palestinian National Fund, which provides assistance to prisoners, a terrorist organization.
The issue was raised during Trump’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in May.
Halting the payments is expected to be one of the concessions demanded of Palestinians in order to revive moribund peace talks.
Israel, which collects customs duties on goods destined for Palestinian markets and then transfers the money to the PA, is considering using that arrangement to apply more pressure. The Knesset is mulling a bill to deduct from the transfers \ the same amount as the PA pays out in prisoner stipends.
At a Senate hearing on Wednesday, US lawmakers also expressed support for pressuring the PA to halt the payments, but some expressed worries that slashing funding could lead to instability.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker (R) indicated that even Israel would not necessarily support cutting money to the PA, even if officials have publicly called for the legislation, fearing it could weaken the Palestinian Authority.
At one point, Corker, who was otherwise enthusiastic about the Taylor Force Act, named for a US student killed in a 2016 Jaffa terror attack, recalled that when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R) proposed cutting US funding of the Palestinian Authority over this matter in 2016, Israeli government officials contacted him seeking to block the legislation.
But Palestinians say the PA is still being hamstrung by US and Israeli tactics.
“It seems impossible for the Palestinian Authority to take a decision on this subject under American and Israeli pressure,” Palestinian political scientist Abdel Majid Suilem said.
The wife of veteran inmate Nael Barghouthi said the payments she used to receive had ceased without explanation in early June.
Barghouthi was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1978 for participating in the kidnapping and killing of an Israeli soldier.
“We just want the (Palestinian) law to be observed and to know what is happening,” Nafie Barghouthi said at a recent gathering of ex-prisoners and current inmates’ wives whose incomes have also dried up.
Ex-prisoner Yasser Hijazi said he was shocked to find his benefits terminated at the height of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time of increased family expenses.
He had been released in 2011 after 11 years behind bars and got no explanation from PA officials for the sudden cut.
“We were not told anything,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.