Biden administration says it’s pushing Ramallah to reform terror payment policy

State Department official says US closely tracking requirements under Taylor Force Act; Palestinian official says Ramallah exploring alternatives to current rules for stipends

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 25, 2021. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 25, 2021. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

NEW YORK — The Biden administration is committed to pushing the Palestinian Authority to reform its welfare policy that includes payments to security prisoners and families of Palestinians killed while carrying out terror attacks, a senior State Department official told The Times of Israel.

“There should be no question about this. This has been a longstanding priority of prior administrations and remains a top US priority,” the senior official said Tuesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity and insisting that the reforms the administration is encouraging will be consistent with existing US laws.

The Taylor Force Act passed by Congress in 2018 suspended US aid to the PA as long as it continued to implement the existing welfare policy, which awards stipends to prisoners based on the length of their sentence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised his qualms about the payments during his meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last month. Abbas assured the top diplomat that Ramallah was working to reform the policy, a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel.

The source said that PA officials have been holding periodic discussions on the matter with its American counterparts, and Ramallah has purchased the services of a DC-based law firm to consult on bringing its policy in line with US legislation.

While several proposals have been explored thus far, it is unclear whether the PA will move forward with the reforms and whether they’ll be consistent with the Taylor Force Act, according to the Palestinian official.

Then-US vice president Joseph Biden, left, walks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, ahead of their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 10, 2010. (AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill/File)

The underlying alteration to the policy being pursued would base the stipends on prisoners’ financial needs rather than the length of their sentence, the Palestinian official confirmed.

Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel in December that Ramallah is seeking a commitment in return from the Biden administration that it will deem unconstitutional legislation passed by Congress in 1987 that classifies the Palestinian Liberation Organization and its affiliates as terror groups. Doing so would allow Palestinian officials to operate more freely in the US.

The senior State Department official said Tuesday that the Biden administration “is closely tracking requirements under the Taylor Force Act and other similar legislation. In administering assistance for the West Bank and Gaza, the Biden-Harris administration has made clear it will do so consistent with the Taylor Force Act and all applicable requirements under US law. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

The comments appeared to be a swipe at Congressional Republicans, who in recent weeks have sought to block US humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, saying it would violate the Taylor Force Act.

None of the over $235 million in aid announced by the Biden administration in recent months is slated to go to the PA or Hamas in Gaza and instead will be funneled to various USAID programs as well as UNRWA — the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

Highlighting the $38 million in assistance to Gaza that was announced following last month’s war, the senior State Department official said, “This critical assistance will support humanitarian organizations to provide emergency shelter, food, relief items, and health care, as well as mental health and psychosocial support for those who experienced trauma.”

A Palestinian pupil walks past United Nations Relief and Works Agency, (UNRWA) and USAID humanitarian aid, on June 6, 2010, in the Shatie refugee camp in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

“The administration provides assistance in a manner consistent with US law and does not direct assistance to Hamas. As we do around the world, the administration will provide assistance in the West Bank and Gaza through experienced, and trusted independent partners on the ground, who distribute directly to people in need,” the official added.

The aid announcements have been a reversal of the Trump administration’s policy, which effectively ended financial assistance to the Palestinians completely over Ramallah’s refusal to engage with its peace plan.

The State Department official echoed comments made by the Biden administration since January, asserting that “Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and dignity, which is important in its own right and as a means to advancing the prospects for a two-state solution.”

While the official did not go as far as to warn of any consequences, they cautioned both sides against “unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.”

The official added that this includes Israeli settlement building. Over a dozen projects in the West Bank were advanced by the Defense Ministry on Tuesday, in defiance of the Biden stance.

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