In search of Restart With Biden, Palestinians Eye Finish to Prisoner Funds

JERUSALEM – In a bold move to improve their tarnished image in Washington, the Palestinians are laying the groundwork for an overhaul of one of their most cherished, yet controversial, practices.

These policies, which critics call “pay to slay,” have long been condemned by Israel and its supporters as an incentive to terrorism because it assures potential attackers that their loved ones are well looked after. And because payments depend largely on length of prison sentence, critics say that the most heinous crimes get the most reward.

In a bipartisan reprimand against the system, Congress repeatedly passed laws to reduce aid to the Palestinians by the size of these payments. The payments were led by the Trump administration as it cut funding and took other punitive measures against the Palestinians from 2018.

Now, however, Palestinian officials seeking a fresh start with the new Biden government – and wanting to reverse these punitive measures – are following the advice of sympathetic Democrats who have repeatedly warned that without an end to payments it would be impossible for the new government, in theirs Name to do heavy lifting.

The proposal, drawn up in Ramallah, would provide grants to families of Palestinian prisoners based on their financial needs, rather than how long they were behind bars, said Qadri Abu Bakr, chairman of the Palestinian Authority’s Prisoners Affairs Commission.

“Economic needs must serve as the basis,” said Abu Bakr in a telephone interview. “A single man shouldn’t earn the same as someone with a family.”

The plan, which has not been publicly announced, is only the last in a series of steps the Palestinians are taking to try to restart their international relations. On Tuesday, they gave in to widespread diplomatic pressure and resumed cooperation with Israel on security and civil matters after a six-month boycott. And on Wednesday, they said they had returned their envoys to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after calling them back in protest against these countries’ normalization agreements with Israel.

The details of the proposed changes to the prisoner payment system are still ongoing, Abu Bakr said, and require the approval of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

It is not yet clear whether the decoupling of payments from crime will satisfy the system’s strongest critics if payments continue to be made to prisoners.

But the proposal will almost certainly forcefully push back many Palestinians who have long venerated prisoners as heroes and freedom fighters.

The status of prisoners is possibly the most emotionally charged issue on the Palestinian street: one of the biggest protest movements in the West Bank in recent years has been the support of prisoners who went on hunger strike in 2017. In May, when some Palestinian banks followed suit with an Israeli military order preventing them from distributing payments to the prisoners’ families, armed men opened fire on several branches of the banks.

The Palestinians have been making payments to Israeli prisoners for decades, defending them as critical compensation for an unfair military justice system, and necessary to secure incomes for families who have lost their main breadwinners.

Under the current system, the Palestinian Authority pays higher grants to prisoners who have been in prison for long periods of time, regardless of the economic well-being of their families. For example, someone who spent 35 years in prison could make thousands of dollars a month; Someone who is in prison for four years could get hundreds.

Ashraf al-Ajrami, a former minister for prisoner affairs, said he fully expected the public to react “angrily” to the proposed changes. However, he acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority was keen to change the system because of the diplomatic toll it had been asking.

When asked about the plan, inmates’ relatives expressed disbelief and disgust.

“This is 100 percent unacceptable and shameful,” said Qassam Barghouti, the son of Marwan Barghouti, who was convicted by Israel of five murder cases and is serving several life sentences.

“The prisoners are not a social problem,” he added. “People are paid more to spend extended periods of time in prison to acknowledge their victims: the more time you spend behind bars, the greater your value to society.”

Officials said they also plan to force released prisoners to take jobs in the public sector. Currently, many former prisoners receive a monthly pension when they sit idle, Abu Bakr said.

“We shouldn’t give people salaries if they don’t do anything,” he said, noting that his commission had already distributed questionnaires to former prisoners about their job preferences. “You should work for her.”

Officials said they also planned to overtake payments to families of attackers and other people killed by Israelis – another extremely sensitive issue among Palestinians they refer to as martyrs. While officials said the Palestinians wanted these payments to be strictly linked to financial hardship, the details of how they would proceed remained unclear.

The details will be important. Israelis, who worked on the payments for years, said they needed to be convinced that the changes were more than just cosmetic.

“They finally understand that they have to do something,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired military intelligence general who is one of the most outspoken critic of the payments. “That’s good. But we have to be vigilant. I’m still suspicious.”

And some critics consider payments to prisoners’ families to be too much.

“A terrorist needs to know that if his family participates in terrorism, he will not receive any money from the Palestinian Authority because he was jailed in Israel,” said Avi Dichter, a Likud lawmaker.

Since early last year, Israel has been pressuring the Palestinians to stop making payments by withholding part of the more than $ 100 million it collects in taxes each month on its behalf.

Talks aimed at getting the Palestinians to end the system became urgent about two months ago, several stakeholders said. Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations envoy for the Middle East, as well as diplomats from Norway and Germany have been described as instrumental in putting pressure on the Palestinians.

As a Biden win became more likely, Washington think tanks organized numerous zoom calls with Palestinian officials, in which Democratic officials explained why it was important to end the payment system if the Palestinians hoped to get Mr. Biden to to reverse the Trump administration’s movements – like reopening a Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington that Mr Trump had closed.

Mr Biden and his colleague Kamala Harris have promised to restore at least some aid and reopen the diplomatic mission.

In practice, the call participants told the Palestinians that if the Biden government – with little bandwidth for the Middle East and the need to manage every bit of its political capital – could not do much for them if it did not “pay.” to kill ”. was canceled. An act of Congress requires reform of the system before much of the aid can be restored.

A State Department official said the United States “strongly condemns the Palestinian Authority’s practice of paying terrorists or their families and welcomes their immediate cessation.”

Nimrod Novik, a former advisor to Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a long-time advocate of a two-state solution, said Palestinian leaders are willingly convinced. However, it was left to them to devise a formula that would satisfy the trial of both sides of the conflict, and then figure out how to “put a bulletproof vest around it” to withstand the anticipated angry reaction from the Palestinian public.

Like others who were concerned about popular discontent, Mr. Novik questioned the wisdom of publicly discussing the proposal now.

“The way to sell it is when it comes in a package,” Novik said, in exchange for a specific move by the new Biden administration. “Now it’s isolated, as a deposit for goodwill. Once it’s in the public domain, the prize is paid. “

Lara Jakes contributed to coverage from Washington.

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