Israel rejects US claim Palestinians stopping payouts to terrorists

After US Secretary of State Tillerson said Ramallah intends to stop paying inmates and families, Jerusalem says it has seen no change

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image of security prisoners in the Ofer Prison facility near Ramallah, August 20, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Illustrative image of security prisoners in the Ofer Prison facility near Ramallah, August 20, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Jerusalem on Wednesday said the Palestinians were continuing to pay salaries to incarcerated terrorists, rejecting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s claim a day earlier that the controversial payouts would be stopped.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and a second senior diplomatic official both said they had not seen any sign Ramallah was intending to cut off the payments, rebuffing Tillerson and making a rare break with Washington.

“I have to say that I didn’t seen any indication that the Palestinian Authority stopped or intends to stop payments to terrorists and terrorists’ families,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told Israel Radio Wednesday morning.

“We’re following this closely,” he added.

A senior diplomatic official said the Palestinians were “continuing to pay families of terrorists.”

“Israel is unaware of any change of Palestinian policy,” the official said. “The Palestinian Authority continues to glorify [terrorists], to incite and to promote terror vis-a-vis these payments.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, did not provide any other details, but the statement was a rare display of displeasure from the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has taken pains to show a united front with Washington.

During a public hearing on Capitol Hill with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the US State Department’s budget, Tillerson indicated that the Palestinian leadership had changed its policy and intends to stop paying the families of terrorists jailed for attacking or killing Israelis.

“They have changed that policy and their intent is to cease the payments to the families of those who have committed murder or violence against others,” he said. “We have been very clear with them that this [practice of paying terrorists] is simply not acceptable to us.”

US lawmakers are considering legislation that would slash funding to the Palestinians as long as the payments continue.

On Sunday, Israeli ministers green-lighted a local version of the bill, which would cut tax transfers to Palestinians by the amount paid out to the terrorists.

The Palestinians have paid out some NIS 4 billion — or $1.12 billion — over the past four years to terrorists and their families, a former director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and ex-head of the army’s intelligence and research division told a top Knesset panel late last month.

Asked at the hearing about US foreign policy going forward, specifically pertaining to Ramallah policy of paying terrorists, Tillerson said that both he and US President Donald Trump had discussed the issue with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during their recent meetings in Washington and Bethlehem.

“The president raised it, and I had a bilateral meeting with [Abbas] later and I told him: You absolutely have to stop this,” Tillerson said.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 13, 2017. (AP /Jacquelyn Martin)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 13, 2017. (AP /Jacquelyn Martin)

When Trump met with Abbas in Washington on May 3, the White House said the US president brought up the issue with the Palestinian leader.

“President Trump raised his concerns about payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed terrorist acts, and to their families, and emphasized the need to resolve this issue,” the White House said at the time.

The payments are technically carried out by the Palestine Liberation Organization — an umbrella group for Palestinian factions — after Abbas transferred the responsibility away from the PA in an attempt to deflect criticism of the payment system. Abbas is the head of both the PA and the PLO.

Many GOP leaders on Capitol Hill had urged the US president to push Abbas on the payments before the meeting.

Trump met a second time with Abbas, in Bethlehem, on May 23, and told him: “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded or rewarded.”

In February, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) introduced the Taylor Force Act, which would cut US funding to the Palestinian Authority if it continues to provide monetary support to the families of those who commit acts of terror against Israelis and others.

The legislation is named after former US army officer Taylor Force, who was stabbed to death in March 2016 by a Palestinian terrorist while visiting Tel Aviv. Force was a graduate student at Vanderbilt University and was traveling with other students on a program studying global entrepreneurship.

Since then, Republicans have voiced a strong desire to see that policy changed in Ramallah.

Eric Cortellessa contributed to this report.

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