In July, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a dramatic step against alleged support for terrorism by the Palestinian Authority: Henceforth, he declared, Israel would withhold a portion of the tax revenues it owes to the P.A. in response to the Palestinian leadership’s own payouts to terrorists and their families.
The announcement came on the heels of one of the most gruesome Palestinian murders in recent months. The previous day, a Palestinian had stabbed and killed a sleeping 13-year-old Israeli Jew in the Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, before he himself was shot dead. Because of his crime, his family became eligible for a $350 monthly Palestinian stipend, The Associated Press reported.
Yet almost seven weeks after Netanyahu’s announcement, the Prime Minister’s Office refuses to say whether the Israeli leader’s vow has been fulfilled.
“It’s all lip service,” said David Bedein, head of the Center for Near East Policy Research, an Israeli advocacy group that tracks the issue. “Everything is continuing as normal.”
Netanyahu’s announcement and its questionable follow-up is but the latest twist in the saga of a controversial and complicated system of subsidizing Palestinians involved in terror, among others, that has lasted for decades. These payments have been the subject of international outcry and Congressional legislation, yet they persist as an integral part of the Palestinian governing ethos.
The United States has recently taken steps to minimize its complicity in the payment system. According to the State Department, the U.S. has, since 2015, deducted from its aid to the P.A. a sum equal to the payments issued to the families of those Israel deems security offenders and to the families of those killed by Israeli forces while committing violent attacks. But these payments also include civilian non-combatants killed by Israel and people Israel has jailed for non-violent acts, whom Washington also includes in its deductions.
The Israeli government considers stipends such as those that will now be paid out to the family of the Kiryat Arba attacker an “incentive for murder.” Netanyahu’s vow, if implemented, would deduct the amount of money that the P.A. spends on the families of terrorists from the tax revenues that Israel collects and distributes on behalf of the Palestinians.
Such action would address a near-constant refrain on the pro-Israel right in recent years: the claim that the Palestinian government subsidizes terrorism by paying killers and their families. But Palestinians don’t see it this way at all. According to one of the payment program’s main advocates, these payments are part of a broad social program to take care of those who have lost family members in the conflict with Israel.
“They are a part of our people,” said Qadura Fares, head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, one of the two main non-governmental organizations that advocates for prisoners’ rights. Fares, who is knowledgeable about the payments systems, emphasized, “The family did nothing against anyone.”
Fares said that attacks against Israelis are “not terror,” but rather “part of the struggle” against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. Moreover, he doesn’t believe that paying killers’ families actually incentivizes murder. He argued that it does the opposite by helping the attackers’ children choose a different path.
“When we support these families they have an opportunity to continue studying, to live in a respectable situation, and some of the prisoners’ sons learn in the universities,” he said. “They become a normal family, not a special family with a high potential to be extreme.”
Regardless of how the controversial payments influence Palestinian behavior, the payments system is more complicated than its critics make it out to be. It provides not only for the families of terrorists — both those dead and those still alive and in prison — but also for the families of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli fire, such as young people killed in the first or second intifada. It also pays a monthly stipend for use in the prison canteen to Palestinians serving time in Israeli prisons for either terrorist acts or common crimes. And despite Netanyahu’s protestations about payments to terrorists, Israel actually facilitates this cash flow into Israeli prisons.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Netanyahu’s declared intent to withhold P.A. tax revenues targets only the families of Palestinian assailants, not the families of civilian noncombatants killed by Israel. But the official was unable to provide details on how Israel separates terrorists from other recipients of the controversial Palestinian fund. Nor, despite repeated requests, was he able to say whether the deductions had begun or when they would begin; nor was he able to say to how much they amounted.
The official responded merely that the Prime Minister’s Office stands behind the prime minister’s announcement.
It was in 1966 that the Palestine Liberation Organization, the political body that represents all Palestinians worldwide, began issuing these payments as a way to care for families who had lost a member in the fight against Israel, Fares said. The PLO paid both families of fighters who died attacking Israelis and families of civilians killed in Israeli military actions — both considered “martyrs” in Palestinian parlance.
The fund also began paying the families of people imprisoned for security offenses against Israelis, whether those Israelis were military combatants or noncombatant civilians.
In 1998, after the Oslo Peace Accords established the Palestinian Authority to govern the West Bank and Gaza, a group of prisoner advocates, including Fares, convinced the P.A. to take over the funding for prisoners and their families as an official government function. Around this time, but separately, the P.A. also began paying the canteen money for all Palestinian prisoners inside Israel, including those imprisoned for common crimes, like car theft and drug dealing. These funds are distributed directly into inmates’ accounts for use in the prison canteen to buy clothes, shoes and food.
Meanwhile, the funding for families of dead “martyrs” — both terrorists and noncombatant civilians killed by Israeli forces — remained under the purview of the PLO.
Shifting the payments for prisoners and their families to the P.A. helped precipitate the current controversy because the P.A. is a major recipient of foreign aid. Citing these payments, Israel’s advocates have alleged that foreign governments, including the United States, inadvertently support Palestinian terror when they finance the P.A.
But in 2014, Congress passed legislation to prevent U.S. assistance from being used in this way. The legislation mandates deductions from assistance to the P.A. according to what the P.A. spends on payments “for acts of terrorism by individuals who are imprisoned after being fairly tried and convicted” and “by individuals who died committing acts of terrorism.”
In apparent response to such pressure, the P.A. shifted the funding for prisoners and their families back to the PLO that same year. According to a PLO official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the shift also occurred so that the PLO could retain control of this function in case the P.A. collapsed. But The Associated Press reported that this shift was nominal; the P.A., it asserted, but without attribution, funds the PLO institutions that deliver the payments to the families. Several efforts to confirm this with PLO and P.A. officials were unsuccessful.
But for the State Department, it seems, it makes no difference through which conduit the money flows — or whether the security offense in question was violent or nonviolent. It doesn’t even matter if the person jailed was ever charged and tried. In response to inquiries from the Forward, a department spokesman made clear that it was aware that “the PLO makes payments related to individuals in Israeli prisons including those convicted in Israeli courts of terrorism and other violent crimes, as well as others who have not been charged with a crime or who committed non-violent offenses such as political graffiti or participating in unauthorized demonstrations.”
Notwithstanding the shift to the PLO, the spokesman said that U.S. assistance to the P.A. in fiscal year 2015 had been reduced “in relation to these payments and in accordance” with congressional legislation. The spokesman refused to disclose the size of the reduction in dollars.
Still, apparently just to make sure, this year, Republican Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana introduced language to specifically target PLO funding as well. The new language is part of a foreign operations appropriation bill that is now in committee.
Today, the PLO has two departments in charge of the controversial payments. One of them is a department for “martyrs” and injured. Since 1966, this fund has been headed by Intisar al-Wazir, widow of PLO military leader Khalil al-Wazir, whom Israeli forces assassinated in 1988.
According to The Associated Press, each family of a Palestinian killed by Israel — regardless of whether the person was a terrorist or a civilian noncombatant — receives a base payment of $350 per month. The money increases by $100 if the person was married. Another $50 is added for each child. The fund also helps people who have been injured by Israeli fire. According to Fares, it has not, for the most part, made payments to Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in Gaza since 2007, when Hamas wrested control of that territory from the P.A.
The other PLO fund issues payments to the families of “security” prisoners behind bars in Israel. Israel defines these prisoners as those who have been convicted of a crime or a plot to commit a crime against Israel or Israel’s national security. Convicted accomplices, such as drivers who transported an attacker to the site of an attack, are included. This PLO fund also helps hire lawyers to represent Palestinians in military court and aids ex-prisoners in getting back on their feet when they get out.
This prisoners’ fund supports only Palestinians and the families of prisoners who are in Israeli prisons. There are 1,050 prisoners in P.A. prisons, including 80 classified as political prisoners by The Independent Commission for Human Rights, the Palestinian national human rights commission. According to ICHR’s director, Ammar Dwaik, most of the political prisoners in P.A. prisons were charged with being affiliated with Hamas. These prisoners receive no support from the PLO prisoners’ fund.
According to the Israel Prison Service, there are currently 6,316 “security” prisoners from the West Bank and Gaza behind Israeli bars. Fares said that about 1,000 of them are P.A. employees who continue to receive a paycheck from the P.A., which makes their families ineligible for other payments.
The families who receive money from the prisoners’ fund are paid based on a sliding scale. The families of prisoners who spend five years or less in jail receive $350 per month. The amount goes up by $131 if the prisoner is married. If the prisoner has children, each child increases the monthly payment by $52.
For individuals who have been in prison between five and 10 years, the “base” amount goes up to $1,312 per month per family, and for people who been in jail for 30 years, all the way up to $2,624.
Fares explained that the prisoners’ families often set aside all or a portion of the money for them until they are released, so that the prisoners can begin their lives from a solid financial position on the outside.
Pro-Israel groups see payments from all these funds as rewarding terror. On his group’s website, Bedein, described this practice as a “murder incentive fund.”: “In Israel, never say that ‘crime does not pay.’”
Fares defended the practice as an answer to Israeli policies, like punitive home demolitions, which punish families when one of their members engages in a terrorist act. On August 14, the home of the Palestinian who murdered the 13-year-old Israeli Jew, located in the West Bank town of Bani Naim, was demolished by Israeli forces. Such demolitions were widespread during the second intifada, but then were halted in 2005 as an ineffective deterrent that possibly contravened international law. In 2014, Israeli officials resurrected the policy.
Yet even during the period in which home demolitions were halted, the payments continued, Fares said; housing demolitions, he said, were just one example of the way Israel punishes families for the acts of individuals.
Despite the outcry over such payments, Palestinian officials are unlikely to roll them back, said Nathan Brown, a political scientist at The George Washington University and an expert on internal Palestinian issues.
“Payments to prisoners are universally supported among Palestinians. It is a matter of considerable emotional resonance among all segments of Palestinian society,” Brown wrote in an email to the Forward. “I think it is about as likely for the P.A. or the PLO to renounce this as it would be for the Israeli government to take Lehi or Irgun names” — two Zionist pre-state militias that engaged in terrorist acts — “off of public places, or for the U.S. to abolish the Department of Veteran’s Affairs,” he continued, explaining how the prisoners’ issue is viewed among Palestinians.
While Israel decries stipends for the families of terrorists, it actually facilitates prison canteen payments for all Palestinian prisoners — including terrorists.
Every Palestinian prisoner in Israeli prison, regardless of whether his crime is security or criminal related, receives $106 each month. An Israel Prison Service spokesperson said that this money comes from the P.A. But Fares said this money comes from the same PLO department that makes payments to the families of prisoners and ex-prisoners. Bedein said that he has tried to raise the issue of canteen payments with Israeli authorities, but “the security establishment has not wanted to work with those of us who want to push the issue of accountability and what I have termed ‘terror transparency,’” he said in an email to the Forward.
An Israeli official with the Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on why Israel objects to the payments to prisoner families and the so-called “martyr” families but not to the canteen payments.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at Zeveloff@forward.com or on Twitter, @NaomiZeveloff.
Nathan Guttman also contributed to this story from Washington.
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.