Hamas may have scored a tactical victory with the inclusion of the ministry of prisoner affairs in the Palestinian unity government sworn in Monday, but a senior Fatah official told The Times of Israel that Western and Israeli pressure have succeeded in changing the way the Palestinian government funds security prisoners in Israeli prisons and their families.
As the Hamdallah government was being presented in Ramallah, Fatah official Kadoura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners Club, still believed that the Prisoner Affairs Ministry would be abolished and replaced by a body subordinate to the PLO.
“Abbas didn’t just feel like canceling the ministry,” Fares told The Times of Israel. “There was massive pressure from Israel. [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Liberman can celebrate today.”
According to Fares, skittishness from Western donor states to contribute to the funding of the prisoners may mean the Palestinians will instead look to funnel inmates and their families money through the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“Our funding [from the West] hasn’t been affected yet, but we’re anticipating such a move,” he said.
Without US and European support, though, the PLO will be forced to appeal to Arab states for alternative funding.
Fares insisted, however, that the rights of Palestinian prisoners would not be harmed by the altered bureaucracy. Most security prisoners held in Israeli jails belong to Fatah, he reasoned, so Fatah would be the last party to challenge a 2012 law that entrusts the Palestinian government with the prisoners’ well-being.
“Take a criminal inmate in Israel who did something very bad. Would the Israeli government forsake his family? Every government in the world takes responsibility for its prisoners,” Fares said.
“Israel argues that we pay prisoners according to the number of Israelis they killed, which is a complete lie,” he added.
‘Expecting increasing US and European pressure to cut government funding to families of Palestinian prisoners, the PLO will appeal to Arab states for alternative financial support’
The struggle between Hamas and Fatah over the ministry of prisoner affairs, which almost led to Hamas’s withdrawal from the unity government at the last minute, was a manifestation of the rival movements’ differing attitudes toward the West, and Israel. While PA President Abbas strove to minimize Hamas’s influence on the new technocrat cabinet and has presented it to the world as a neutral body, Hamas struggled to imbue it with as much national character as possible.
For Hamas — clearly the weaker party in the unity pact — abolishing the ministry has both practical and principled aspects. Just hours before the swearing-in, Hamas officials seemed convinced that Fatah would not fold. Party spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri threatened to bolt the government if the ministry was not maintained and led by an acting minister.
Sheikh Hassan Youssef, a Hamas official from Ramallah released in January from Ofer prison where he served for over two years, told The Times of Israel that the timing of the concession requested of Hamas was especially egregious.
“To compromise on our position at this time, when prisoners have been on hunger strike for 40 days, is unacceptable,” Youssef said. “Besides, the Prisoner Affairs Ministry bears national significance to our struggle.”
“We will not agree to the abolition of this ministry under any circumstance,” he said.
But in Youssef’s eyes, the move had practical significance as well. For years, he argued, the PLO has been paying a monthly stipend of NIS 800 (230$) to its own prisoners in Israeli jails, while depriving Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners of any financial assistance.
The PLO will soon cancel its assistance to all prisoners regardless of affiliation, Youssef asserted. Ironically, Hamas had proposed a Fatah member as minister — Hisham Abdul Razeq, who had filled the position in the past.
“The entire Palestinian body politic should reconsider this issue. The ministry should either be maintained or turned into a commission with clear prerogatives that will serve everyone.”
Eventually, moments before the planned swearing-in at 1 p.m., a compromise was reached whereby the ministry will remain but will be under the direct charge of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.
Hamas had already yielded to Abbas’s will by agreeing to the appointment of Hamdallah as prime minister and of Riyad al-Malki as foreign minister. Whether or not Monday’s lopsided compromise will allow Hamas to save face with its constituency, only time will tell.