The Knesset plenum on Wednesday approved in its preliminary reading a bill that would slash funds to the Palestinian Authority over salaries paid out by Ramallah to convicted terrorists and their families.
The vote came as Israeli officials said Tuesday the Palestinians were continuing to pay allowances to incarcerated terrorists, rejecting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s claim a day earlier that the controversial payouts would be stopped.
Some 48 Knesset members voted in favor of the bill and 13 opposed it.
The proposal would see Israel cut around NIS 1 billion ($285 million) from the annual tax revenues it collects for the Palestinians and hands over to them — equivalent to the amount that Ramallah pays to terrorists and their families, a practice Israel and the international community have attempted to end.
Authored by Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, the bill has been co-signed by Knesset members from both the coalition and opposition, including coalition chair David Bitan and Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair Avi Dichter, both of Likud.
The powerful and secretive Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was tasked Wednesday will readying the legislation for its additional three readings before it becomes law.
Backing up the bill in the plenum on Wednesday, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home) said “it cannot be that with one hand, they [the Palestinians] seek to make peace with Israel, while they continue to fund terrorists with the other.”
“The first stage of normalization with the Palestinian Authority will be severing [its ties] with terrorism,” he added.
The bill was condemned as “draconian” by Joint (Arab) List MK Youssef Jabareen.
“It is collective punishment against the entire Palestinian population,” he said. “There are nearly no families that don’t have a relative that is a political security prisoner.”
Israel transfers about NIS 460 million ($125 million) a month, or NIS 5.4 billion ($1.5 billion) a year, to the Palestinian Authority in tax and customs duties levied on goods destined for Palestinian markets that transit through Israeli ports. The transfers are a key revenue source for the cash-strapped Palestinian government. Israel has withheld payment in the past over political disputes.
The proposed legislation says that in 2016, the Palestinian Authority paid out some NIS 1.1 billion ($303 million) in stipends and other benefits to the families of so-called “martyrs” who lost their lives during attacks against Israelis and to Palestinian prisoners serving time in Israeli jails for security offenses.
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.
According to Palestinian law, Palestinian security prisoners serving time in Israeli jails and families of assailants killed while carrying attacks against Israelis are eligible to receive stipends and other benefits.
The Middle East Media Research Institute estimates that the allowances range from $364 (NIS 1,500) a month for a term of up to three years, to $3,120 (NIS 13,000) for a term of 30 years and more. There is also a monthly $78 supplement for terrorists from Jerusalem and a $130 supplement for Arab Israeli terrorists.
Stern’s bill represents the first time the issue has been tackled through Israeli legislation, and follows similar efforts to limit US funding to the PA.
During a public hearing on Capitol Hill with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the US State Department’s budget, Tillerson indicated on Tuesday 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.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and a second senior diplomatic official both said Wednesday 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 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.”
Israel has long argued that the PA’s payments glorify terrorism, part of what it sees as a broader trend of “incitement” blamed for fueling a surge of violence last year.
The issue of PA payments to terrorists received heightened media coverage during US President Donald Trump’s visit to Israel last month, during which he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On May 3 in Washington, at the first meeting between the two, Trump urged Abbas to stop incitement, crack down on terrorism, and “resolve” his government’s policy of paying stipends to terrorists and their families.
Abbas, for his part, told Trump in their joint White House press conference that “we are raising our youth, our children, our grandchildren on a culture of peace.”
In the wake of that claim, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slammed Abbas, saying that the statement was “far from the truth.”
Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham reintroduced legislation in March that would cut US funding if it continues to provide monetary support to the families of those who commit acts of terror against Israelis and others.
The bill, known as the Taylor Force Act, 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.
Raphael Ahren and Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.