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

MKs reject ministers’ bid for final say on freezing PA funding for terrorists

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

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Members of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee vote 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)
Members of the Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee vote 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)

Lawmakers gave the go-ahead Monday for a final vote on a bill that would slash funds to the Palestinian Authority by the amount Ramallah pays out to convicted terrorists, rejecting a government request 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, sys 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 thus withheld will instead go into a fund designated to help victims of terror attacks.

In a dramatic vote following a tense debate between lawmakers and government officials, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee voted 9-1 to authorize a version of the bill excluding a clause that would have given the government the ability to effectively opt out 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.

“This is nothing short of neutering the Knesset,” said Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev of the request.

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 problem is that no government since 1994 ever did it,” said Likud’s MK Amir Ohana. “They have all kept up this farce.”

Citing the recent violence on the Gaza border, including massive damage to agricultural lands from incendiary kites sent over by protesters, Yesh Atid’s Haim Jellin, a former head of the Eshkol Regional Council outside the Strip, charged that the government “clearly doesn’t know how to fight terror.”

“This law is, in the most obvious sense, a victory over terror,” Jellin told the committee. “Why even consider not implementing it?”

While Dichter, who also heads the committee, proposed a compromise version of the government’s opt-out clause that would have allowed ministers to delay cutting the funds by three months at a time with the permission of MKs, his co-author Stern said he would only agree to “zero flexibility,” adding that if there was the need for a change, it could be done via new legislation.

While it was initially proposed by the Defense Ministry, Yisrael Beytenu faction chairman MK Robert Ilatov said that his party’s leader, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, was personally opposed to the softer version of the bill.

“The idea of flexibility will be understood by the other side as a weakness on our behalf,” Ilatov said, claiming to speak for Liberman.

Tweeting in favor of the bill when it faced a preliminary vote in the Knesset last month, Liberman said of the current situation: “This madness, that we’re transferring money to the Palestinian Authority that is used to encourage terror against us, will cease.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted praise of the measure immediately after the vote, thanking the committee for supporting “my proposal to also deduct funds from the Palestinian Authority for damages caused by fires on the Gaza border. Justice needs to be done. Those who burn fields will pay the price.”

On Sunday, the prime minister instructed National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat to work on a process that would withhold payments to the PA to offset compensation for communities living on the Gaza border that have seen tens of thousands of acres of fields and nature reserves destroyed in blazes over the past month and a half.

That proposal, however, was not included in the bill voted on during Monday’s committee meeting. Instead, the committee accepted a request made by a representative of the Prime Minister’s Office for the terror victim fund to also go toward compensation for property damage as a result of terror attacks.

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.

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)

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 on Sunday 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.

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

Meretz MK Issawi Frej, the only lawmaker to oppose the bill in Monday’s committee meeting, said the legislation would not quell terrorism, and may even prevent security forces from tackling it.

Vanderbilt graduate student Taylor Force was killed March 9, 2016, in a terror attack in Jaffa. (Facebook)

“The government is responsible for supporting the Palestinian Authority so that it can enforce security in the West Bank. It can’t do that without this money,” Frej said. “This is an unnecessary law that will not cut terror by 1 percent.”

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. They are, in effect, the victims of the occupation, not the creators of the occupation,” Abbas said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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