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PA says banks will continue serving prisoners’ families despite Israeli threats

PM Shtayyeh says financial institutions agree to freeze action against accounts of terror operatives after military decree, vows to ‘protect banks from oppression of occupation’

File: Palestinian pass by a cash machine of the Bank of Palestine branch in Gaza City, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
File: Palestinian pass by a cash machine of the Bank of Palestine branch in Gaza City, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2008 (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Friday said the authority had agreed with Palestinian banks in the West Bank that despite Israeli threats to impose sanctions on institutions serving people accused of terrorism, the accounts of slain terror operatives and Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons will be unfrozen early next week.

“There will be a unified stance by all parties regarding the Israeli threat against the banks that provide their services to the families of the prisoners and martyrs,” Shtayyeh said.

The Palestinians describe all those killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “martyrs,” including terrorists killed during attacks on civilians or military forces.

Shtayyeh said families of prisoners could reactivate their accounts starting Sunday, after being frozen out of them several days ago by concerned banks.

He rejected “the Israeli threats to banks regarding the allocations for prisoners and martyrs, and we will not submit to them, and we will find solutions that preserve their rights, protect banks from the oppression of the occupation, and any legal procedures.”

Shtayyeh has formed a committee to “to study the Israeli threats against banks that provide services to families of prisoners and martyrs.”

The Hamas terror group, meanwhile, condemned banks’ acquiescence to the Israeli threats, which it said was “a clear response to the dictates of the Israeli occupation, and a serious deviation from values and a moral path.”

It said prisoners were “symbols of the Palestinian people, who spent their years in defense of freedom, dignity, and stolen rights.”

Palestinian officials said Friday that Israel was forcing financial institutions in the West Bank to close accounts held by the families of prisoners in Israeli jails to prevent the Palestinian Authority from providing stipends to them.

Israel has long objected to the Palestinian Authority’s payments to the families of prisoners and those killed in attacks, saying it rewards terrorism. The Palestinians view the payments as a social safety net for those living under decades of military occupation.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh speaks to reporters during a press conference on April 13, 2020. (Wafa)

Protesters shattered the windows of several bank branches and set fires outside some of them late Thursday and early Friday as word of the new regulations spread.

Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian prisoners’ association, said relatives of current and former prisoners had told him they were forced to close their accounts because of a new Israeli military decree penalizing banks for facilitating the payments.

The father of one prisoner told The Associated Press he tried to use an ATM on Thursday but the request was declined. He said the bank told him to withdraw his funds and close the account because of the new Israeli regulations.

A bank manager said the Coordinator Of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military body that oversees civilian affairs in the Palestinian territories, warned banks of the move months ago, saying it would go into effect on May 3. He said the banks were complying because they fear legal action or Israeli raids. He spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from angry clients. Other bank managers declined to comment, citing similar concerns.

The Israeli Defense Ministry and COGAT did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Fares said the families of around 12,000 current and former prisoners receive monthly allowances from the PA. Prisoners who have served more than five years get around $700 a month until they find employment, and families receive aid according to how many children they have, he said.

He said the new regulation was a “blatant violation” of Palestinian sovereignty, since the banks are located in areas governed by the PA. The Israeli military regularly carries out arrest raids and other operations in those areas.

Ofer Prison, near Betunia in the West Bank, houses Palestinian inmates. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Fares on Thursday told Haaretz that closing bank accounts was an extreme step that would hurt some 11,000 families receiving the stipends. “Such a draconian step means a death sentence for many families, for which this stipend is the only financial breathing tube,” he was quoted as saying.

Hussein al-Sheikh, an aide to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, rejected the closing of the accounts, calling it an affront to the “dignity of every Palestinian” and a “submission to the will of the occupation.”

“We hope to create a Palestinian national consensus in protecting our families & their rights & preserving their dignity,” he tweeted.

The payments are dispensed by the so-called Martyrs’ Fund, which also provides aid to the families of suicide bombers and other terrorists. Abbas has spoken out against violence and intermittently held peace talks with Israel, but the negotiations stalled out more than a decade ago. He has repeatedly vowed to continue the payments despite Israeli pressure.

Fatah official Kadoura Fares (photo credit: Flash90)
File: Fatah official Qadura Fares. (Flash90)

Over the last two years, Israel has deducted the amount of the payments from tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA. Last year, the PA rejected all the tax transfers in protest, but it relented months later.

The PA imposed heavy coronavirus restrictions in mid-March, closing nonessential businesses in the parts of the West Bank where it enjoys limited autonomy and banning most travel between towns and villages. Those measures appear to have succeeded in containing the outbreak, with authorities reporting around 540 cases and only two fatalities. But the lockdown is expected to impose heavy economic costs on the territory and the cash-strapped PA.

The new military order, signed in February, applies substantial parts of Israel’s anti-terror law to the West Bank. The law states that any person or body handing financial aid to anyone, with the purpose being to facilitate, advance, fund or reward terror-related offenses, is committing a crime that carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a fine.

There are 13 banks operating in the West Bank areas ruled by the PA. Seven of them are Palestinian-owned, five are Jordanian and one is Egyptian.

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