Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday defended payments to Palestinian prisoners, including convicted terrorists, as a “social responsibility,” and said Israel was using the issue as a pretext to avoid peace talks.
The comments were made in a speech that was read on Abbas’s behalf by his foreign affairs adviser Nabil Shaath at the Herzliya Conference, an annual regional security meeting.
“When the international community has an opportunity to move forward with a final status agreement between Israel and Palestine, the governments of Mr. Netanyahu find an excuse to avoid discussing the key issues,” Abbas said.
“The most recent pretexts include incitement and social aid provided to the families of Palestinian political prisoners,” he added.
Regarding incitement, Abbas reiterated his call for the revival of the tripartite Israeli-American-Palestinian committee on incitement, through which he said each sides’ complaints could be “verified and dealt with.”
Abbas has called numerous times to reinstate the anti-incitement committee. The committee was formed as part of the Wye River Memorandum in 1998, and met every two months until the outbreak of the Second Intifada in September 2000.
While Israel has not responded to Abbas’s calls to revive the committee, it has been vociferous in demanding that Ramallah cease payments to jailed terrorists and the families of terrorists, arguing the payments glorify and promote violence.
The administration of US President Donald Trump, as part of its efforts to restart peace talks between the two sides, has also been pressing for the Palestinians to cease these payments.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that “we have been very clear with them that this [practice of paying terrorists] is simply not acceptable to us.”
Palestinian officials have said there is no intention of ending the payments.
In his remarks to the conference, Abbas maintained that 1,000,000 Palestinian prisoners have been detained in Israeli prisoners since 1948 and that one out of every three Palestinian males has been incarcerated in an Israeli prison.
These statistics were first published in April in a joint report by the Palestinian Commission for Detainees’ and Ex-Detainees’ Affairs, the Palestinian Prisoners Society, and the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
“Is any rational human being going to claim these one million people are terrorists? That one-third of Palestinian [males] are terrorists,” he said.
“It’s quite frankly racist rhetoric to call all our political prisoners terrorists. They are, in effect, the victims of the occupation, not the creators of the occupation,” he added.
Israel has not corroborated these figures. There are currently some 6,500 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails.
The Knesset last week approved the first reading of a bill that views all money paid over to Palestinian prisoners and the so-called “martyr families” as illegitimate.
The bill, if its passes, will cut around NIS 1 billion ($285 million) from the annual tax revenues Israel collects for the Palestinians and hands over to them — equivalent to the amount that Ramallah paid the so-called “martyr families” and prisoners in 2016.
Abbas, in his remarks to the conference, argued that “payments to support the families are a social responsibility to look after innocent people affected by the incarceration or killing of their loved ones.”
Ramallah does not pay every Palestinian prisoner, nor does it give a stipend to every family that had a member “martyred,” a term used by the Palestinians to mean anyone killed by Israelis—whether he/she were attacking Israelis, or were killed during a non-violent action.
Who exactly is chosen to receive payments is a matter of uncertainty.
A recent report published by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Defense Ministry agency responsible for administering civilian affairs in the West Bank and the crossings with Gaza, said that around one-third of the Palestinian prisoners are “directly responsible for the murder of Israelis.”
Shaath, in an interview With The Times of Israel in May, was asked if the PLO could cease payments in “clear-cut” cases of murder or attempted murder. He said that was something which could only be resolved in negotiations.
“If there are people who are involved in civilian killings, and it was really criminal, that could be an exception that could be looked into in a court accepted by the two peoples. All those imprisoned today are [a product] of the occupation. Ending that must be the fruit of peace,” he said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.