The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday unanimously approved for a first Knesset reading a bill that would slash funds to the Palestinian Authority by the amount Ramallah pays out to convicted terrorists and their families.
If passed by the Knesset, the legislation would deduct welfare payments paid out by the Palestinian Authority to Palestinian prisoners and their relatives from tax revenues Israel transfers annually to the PA.
The bill would allow the government to either deduct the funds, which would be irreversible, or “freeze” the payments, leaving the security cabinet with the final say.
Under an economic agreement signed in 1994, Israel transfers to the PA tens of millions of dollars each year in customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports.
The committee accepted a proposal from lawyer Morris Hirsch — a former head of the Military Prosecution in the West Bank who today represents the right-wing NGO Palestinian Media Watch — to take into account not only direct payments to terrorists and their families from the Palestinian Authority, but also from any other body acting on its behalf. The Palestine Liberation Organization already appears in the original bill.
Committee chairman MK Avi Dichter (Likud), one of the sponsors of the law who at one time head the Shin Bet security agency, said, “As long as the Palestinian Authority pays for terror, and as long as the money for this payment passes through us, the Knesset and the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee cannot turn a blind eye. We will not be a conduit for the transfer of terrorist funds.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said earlier this week that the withheld tax revenues would go toward compensating Israeli terror victims who cannot sue their attackers.
“Soon, this theater of the absurd will come to an end, and the salaries of the terrorists that we will withhold from [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas will be used to prevent terrorism and compensate victims,” he said.
Critics of the bill have warned it could bankrupt the PA, leading to its collapse.
The PLO gives monthly payments to all Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel, no matter the reason for their incarceration, and also to families of so-called “martyrs” — a term used by the PLO to refer to anyone killed by an Israeli, including in the act of carrying out an attack.
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.”
According to the Defense Ministry, the Palestinian Authority in 2017 paid NIS 687 million ($198 million) to the so-called “martyrs’ families fund” and NIS 550 million ($160 million) to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club — some 7 percent of its overall budget.
Palestinian prisoners serving 20-30 year sentences for carrying out terror attacks are eligible for a lifetime NIS 10,000 ($1,900) monthly stipend, the Defense Ministry said, citing PA figures. Those prisoners who receive a 3-5 year sentence get a monthly wage of NIS 2,000 ($580). Palestinian prisoners who are married, have children, live in Jerusalem, or hold Israeli citizenship receive additional payments.
The bill will have to pass three readings in the Knesset plenum before it becomes law.
The backing of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday and now of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee lends it coalition support, making it all but guaranteed to advance.
US lawmakers have also been advancing a similar bill, the Taylor Force Act — named for a US national killed in a Tel Aviv stabbing terror attack — which would cut US funding to the PA unless it discontinued its practice of paying monthly stipends to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis.
The PA has refused to cease the payments to Palestinian prisoners.
In June, Abbas, in a speech read by his foreign affairs adviser Nabil Shaath, 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.
“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,” Abbas said.
Marissa Newsman contributed to this report.