Israel will 'shut off the tap,' defense minister says

Lawmakers reject PM’s demand to soften bill freezing PA funding for terrorists

Knesset committee authorizes final votes on measure to deduct welfare payments paid to Palestinian prisoners and their relatives from tax revenues collected by Israel

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Avi Dichter, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Avi Dichter, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Lawmakers gave the final go-ahead on Wednesday for a decisive vote on a bill that would slash funds to the Palestinian Authority by the amount Ramallah pays out to convicted terrorists, rejecting a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give the top-level security cabinet the final say on whether to “freeze” the payments.

The bill, proposed by Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern and Likud MK Avi Dichter, says that welfare payments paid out by the PA to Palestinian prisoners and their relatives must be deducted from tax revenues Israel transfers annually to the administrative body. The money withheld in this way would instead go into a fund designated to help victims of terror attacks.

Two weeks ago, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee gave its approval for a final plenary vote on the bill, but the government filed an emergency motion to amend the text of the law to include a clause that would have given ministers the ability to effectively opt out of it.

In a clear act of defiance, lawmakers rejected the motion, voting instead to go ahead with a plenary vote on the original version of the law.

Declaring bipartisan support for the tougher version of the bill, lawmakers from both the coalition and opposition railed against the government request for the power to override the measure, saying that including such a clause in the legislation would render it useless.

Dichter, the bill’s co-author who is also the committee chairman, told lawmakers that the softened proposal was unacceptable, and would “effectively allow the current situation to continue.”

The motion to amend the bill was proposed by coalition chairman David Amsalem (Likud), though he sought to distance himself from the request, saying in statements before and after the committee meeting that he was only acting “at the request of the government.”

A coalition source told The Times of Israel that the Prime Minister’s Office was behind the request made by Amsalem.

The source also said that the bill is now set for a final plenary vote on Monday.

Speaking at the committee meeting, Likud lawmakers also complained that the amendment would render the bill worthless.

Members of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee after voting in favor of a bill to slash funds to the Palestinian Authority by the amount Ramallah pays out to convicted terrorists, June 11, 2018. (Courtesy)

“Why do we need a law if we are going to let the government decide anyway?” asked Likud MK Anat Berko. “They can decide now if they want to anyway. The point of legislation is to stop that.”

Under the current law, based on the 1994 Oslo Accords that established the PA and the mechanism for Israeli funding, the finance minister already has the ability to freeze funds.

The measure, which would cut hundreds of millions of shekels from tax revenues transferred to the PA, is similar to a measure recently passed in the US, known as the Taylor Force Act, withholding funding to the PA over stipends to terrorists and their families.

According to the Defense Ministry, the PA 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- to 30-year sentences for carrying out terror attacks are eligible for a lifetime NIS 10,000 ($2,772) monthly stipend, the Defense Ministry said, citing PA figures. Those prisoners who receive a three- to five-year sentence get a monthly wage of NIS 2,000 ($554). Palestinian prisoners who are married, have children, live in Jerusalem, or hold Israeli citizenship receive additional payments.

The Defense Ministry last month released figures alleging that some terrorists who killed Israelis will be paid more than NIS 10 million ($2.78 million) each throughout their lifetimes by the PA.

Palestinians hold portraits of relatives jailed in Israeli prisons as they protest to demand for their release during a demonstration to mark the Prisoners’ Day in the northern West Bank city of Nablus on April 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JAAFAR ASHTIYEH)

Critics of the current bill have warned it could bankrupt the PA, leading to its collapse.

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 PA has refused to cease its payments to Palestinian prisoners.

In June 2017, PA President Mahmoud 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,” Abbas said. “They are, in actuality, the victims of the occupation, not the creators of the occupation.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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