Bethlehem, occupied West Bank — The Palestinian public is in an uproar over demands made by the United States and Israel to cut payments to Palestinian political prisoners and former prisoners of Israel as a condition of renewed peace talks.
Thousands of Palestinian prisoners and ex-prisoners receive money from the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Palestinian National Fund (PNF) each month, money that prisoners and their family’s depend on to survive, Akram Atallah of the Palestinian Authority’s Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs Commission told Mondoweiss.
Atallah said he believes the Israeli government’s demand that payments to prisoners stop as a condition of renewed U.S.-led peace talks is a way for the Israeli government to sidestep the progression of a potential peace process.
“The Israeli position understands very much what that impact [of cutting prisoners’ salaries] would be, and how impossible that is,” he said. “This demand to stop payment to prisoners is a condition by Israel to avoid making any peace treaties with the Palestinians. In a time in which people want to talk about settlements and borders and water issues, Israel wants to make this issue with prisoners the crux of a deal to make peace?”
In essence, the program allots a monthly payment of around $350 per prisoner, with the amount increasing depending on whether the prisoner is married, how many dependents they are responsible for and how long they are sentenced. For instance, any Palestinian prisoner who spends more than 10 years in Israeli jails receives around 10,000 shekels ($2,735) a month, according to Ma’an News documentation.
While the PA will not be able to cut prisoners’ salaries without severe backlash, earlier this month the Palestinian government did cut the salaries of 277 former prisoners who were released to Gaza as part of the Galid Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, during which 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were released. Of the 277 Palestinians who had their salaries cut, only one was associated with the Fatah movement, while the rest were Hamas-associated, leaving many Palestinians to decry the cut as a further attack on the Hamas movement by their PA-rivals.
Those with loved ones associated with Hamas in Israeli jails told Mondoweiss they fear the cuts could be extended throughout the Islamic movements, from Hamas to the Islamic Jihad.
“We pray to god that this doesn’t happen,” the mother of a Hamas-affiliated prisoner told Mondoweiss on condition of anonymity. “We have heard a lot of rumors but right now no one knows what to believe. I can’t imagine them cutting all the salaries, but we are hearing a lot of rumors that the members of Islamic parties will have theirs cut.”
Rumors that the PA could cut the salaries of prisoners associated with Islamic parties, chiefly Hamas, is seen as a potential option for the PA to satisfy U.S. and Israel’s demands without alienating the whole of the Palestinian public, as well as a way for the PA to make another hit at its Hamas rivals in Gaza.
During Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump’ son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner, last week, Kushner suggested another compromise, proposing that the PA stop paying the salaries of an estimated 600 Palestinian prisoners sentenced to life by Israeli courts. Abbas reportedly rejected the proposal.
Criticism against the policy of supplying prisoner and ex-prisoners with monthly salaries is nothing new, as the PNF’s program of paying these salaries has been under fire for the last several years. In 2014, the PNF was transferred from being a PA body to a PLO body due to pressure from the international community, which funds much of the PA, and did not want money being sent to the PA to go toward the fund.
However, Abbas heads both the PA and the PLO, and the change was mostly seen as a way to avoid the criticism, since in the move from a body subordinate to the PA to one under the PLO nothing about the fund’s essential function changed.
In March, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to seize PNF funds in order to halt all payments to prisoners and ex-prisoners.
Liberman promised that under the new terrorist designation, “necessary steps will be taken…to seize and forfeit” the money in the fund. However, nothing came of the threat.
The Israeli government’s latest tactic is to threaten the prospects of a peace deal by requiring the salaries be cut as a condition. While Atallah’s office does not have power to decide whether or not the salaries will continue, he said he could not imagine that Palestinian politicians would make the cuts demanded by the U.S. and Israel due to the massive support these salaries have from the Palestinian populace.
“I don’t think that a political decision will be taken on such a crucial issue,” he said. “Cutting salaries would affect thousands of people. Especially knowing that the number of Palestinians who have been imprisoned by Israel since 1967 is around one million — of course not all of those people are receiving payments, but still, thousands do and those people depend on those payments to live. I don’t think that any political leader would dare to take such a decision to stop paying them unless there is a severe financial crisis.”
Atallah added that because Palestinians see prisoners as “part of the national struggle, ethics and dignity” of the Palestinian cause, cutting support for prisoners could “collapse the PA.”
The decision could be taken out of the PA’s hands. Israeli lawmakers are pushing forward a law that would seize an estimated 1 billion shekels ($280 million) per year from tax dollars collected by Israel for the PA government. Each year Israel collects an estimated $2.1 billion in taxes on behalf of the PA, according to a 2015 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) — three quarters of the PA’s revenue.
Earlier this month the Knesset plenum approved a preliminary reading of the bill, with 48 Members of Knesset voting in favor of the bill and 13 opposing it (out of a total of 120).
During the reading, the Times of Israel quoted Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan as saying “it cannot be that with one hand, [Palestinians] seek to make peace with Israel, while they continue to fund terrorists with the other.”
“The first stage of normalization with the Palestinian Authority will be severing [its ties] with terrorism,” Dahan added.
Atallah says that it is the perspective of the Israeli government that is the problem, not the salaries.
“As far as I see it, Israel is going around the real issues,” he said. “It’s simple — no occupation, no prisoners, and no need to pay them.”