PA payments to prisoners, ‘martyr’ families now equal half its foreign budgetary aid

While it expects $693 million from donors, Ramallah’s 2017 budget allocates nearly $345 million for the contentious stipends

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Illustrative. Palestinians celebrate after Palestinian prisoners end a hunger strike over their conditions in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 27, 2017. (Flash90)
Illustrative. Palestinians celebrate after Palestinian prisoners end a hunger strike over their conditions in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 27, 2017. (Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority’s 2017 budget for payments to inmates in Israeli prisons and so-called “families of martyrs” is equal in sum to about half of the foreign aid for budget support that Ramallah expects to receive this year, a recently published Israeli report shows.

According to the PA Finance Ministry’s 2017 budget, published on its website earlier in July, salaries to incarcerated and released Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are convicted terrorists, will amount in 2017 to NIS 552 million ($153.4 million).

That is an increase of 13 percent over the 2016 budget, according to a report published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank on July 24.

The new budget also allocates $190,869,166 for payments to so-called “families of martyrs,” up from $174,630,296 allocated in 2016.

The families are defined as those with members who were “killed or wounded in the struggle against Zionism,” including those killed while committing attacks against Israelis, or in any other context by an Israeli.

The total allocation to Palestinian prisoners and ex-prisoners, as well as martyrs’ families, in the 2017 budget is NIS 1,239,528,424 ($344,313,451).

This sum is equal to 49.6 percent of the funds Ramallah expects donors to contribute to its budget over the year.

Table showing the Palestinian Authority budget since 2013 for payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and ‘martyr’ families. (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs)
Table shows how much the Palestinian Authority has allocated for payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and ‘martyr’ families since 2013. (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs)

However, according to a UN and World Bank report about the flow of foreign aid to the Palestinians, foreign support to the PA’s budget represents just around one-sixth of total foreign aid given to the Palestinians.

For example, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), as well as humanitarian and developmental assistance programs are not part of donations to the PA’s budget.

According to the report, in 2016 the Palestinians received $2,805,825,570 in foreign aid all together.

The US, for example, gave a total of $486,000,000 to the Palestinians in 2016, of which only $75,000,000 was direct budget assistance, the report said.

The author of the report, Brig.-Gen. (res) Yossi Kuperwasser, a formerly director general of the Israeli Strategic Affairs Ministry and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence, told The Times of Israel the rising budget allocation for the payments is not due to any new policy, but rather reflects natural growth under PA laws already in place.

According to the 2017 budget, the total number of “martyrs’ families” and families with injured members to receive payments is 21,500. In 2016 that number was 19,000.

Kuperwasser also pointed out that in accordance with PA law, the payments are updated according to the price of living index.

The budget for the payments has remained steady at around seven percent of the PA’s entire budget since at least 2013. However, its share in relation to foreign aid has grown due to a decline in donations to Ramallah in recent years.

Western donors, including the United States and some European countries, have measures in place to ensure their aid money is used for other purposes, such as paying off PA debts, teachers’ salaries and medical bills.

Some note, however — among them Kuperwasser — that aid from Western countries frees up Palestinian money to be allocated for payments to prisoners and “martyrs’ families,” and so the measures are a technicality that changes nothing.

“At the end of the day, money is fungible,” Kuperwasser said.

Both Israel and the US are weighing legislation that would strip the Palestinian Authority of hundreds of millions of dollars if it does not cease the payments, arguing that they encourage terrorism.

Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham reintroduced legislation in March that would cut US funding if the PA 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 a former US army officer who was stabbed to death in March 2016 by a Palestinian terrorist in Tel Aviv.

Vanderbilt University held a campus memorial service for Taylor Force, above, on March 18, 2016. (Facebook)
Vanderbilt University held a campus memorial service for Taylor Force, above, on March 18, 2016. (Facebook)

US President Donald Trump has also personally urged PA President Mahmoud Abbas to “resolve” the divisive payments issue.

In June, the Knesset approved the first reading of a bill that views all money paid over to Palestinian prisoners and the so-called “martyr families” as illegitimate.

The bill, if its passes, will cut around NIS 1 billion ($285 million) from the annual tax revenues Israel collects for the Palestinians and hands over to them — equivalent to the amount that Ramallah paid the so-called “martyr families” and prisoners in 2016.

The bill is under review by the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

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.

Nabil Shaath at his Ramallah office, January 18, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Nabil Shaath at his Ramallah office, January 18, 2012 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He also argued that Israel was using the issue as a pretext to avoid renewing peace talks.

Kuperwasser pointed out in his report that the PA’s 2017 budget includes a NIS 762 million ($211.6 million) welfare allocation, which is “much smaller” than the sum devoted to prisoners and “martyrs’ families.”

Shaath, in an interview with The Times of Israel in May, was asked if the PLO could cease payments in “clear-cut” cases of murder or attempted murder. He said that was something that could only be resolved in negotiations.

“If there are people who are involved in civilian killings, and it was really criminal, that could be an exception that could be looked into in a court accepted by the two peoples. All those imprisoned today are [a product] of the occupation. Ending that must be the fruit of peace,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Correction: This article originally conflated foreign support to the PA’s budget with total foreign aid to the Palestinians.

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