Days after Trump approved further cuts to foreign aid for the Palestinian Authority over the practice of paying a salary to terrorists and families of slain assailants, Ramallah announced an allocation of $355 million for the cause in 2018 — an $8 million increase over last year. This amount constitutes a significant portion of the PA’s yearly budget, which stands at $4.76 billion for 2018.
While the practice has been ignored for a long time by Western donors, whose aid comprises a hefty portion of West Bank’s and Gaza’s finances, calls to review these payments have intensified. So far, Germany, Norway and Australia have announced investigations into the spending of their funds.
The U.S. administration, however, went a step further. After slashing aid for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) in half, the Taylor Force Act came into effect. The legislation that will enforce payment cuts was named after an American citizen murdered in a terror attack in Tel Aviv two years ago. U.S. foreign aid will continue to fund projects such as hospitals in East Jerusalem, wastewater programs and child vaccination initiatives.
Much like the UNRWA cuts, the latest moves against Palestinian Authority received a mixed reaction from intelligence and security circles in Israel, who fear that any crisis in Palestinian refugee camps, jails or the streets could result in an explosion of violence, thus achieving the countereffect of a measure meant to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The question of funding terrorists — or martyrs, as Palestinians would describe them — seems perfectly simple. Stop paying them and get money. Unfortunately, it gets complicated.
Similar to the UNRWA funds, the terrorist stipends are there to, first and foremost, maintain the social and economical status quo within Palestinian society. Second, just like the only refugee agency in the world that miraculously multiplies refugees, the “Martyrs Fund” is weaved into the fabric of the Palestinian national narrative and struggle — the story of the loss of homeland, the story of exile, the story of David and Goliath. However, while it does keep Palestinians’ spirits and finances afloat, the Martyrs Fund, like UNRWA, in the long run, perpetuates the problem it intends to solve, pushing Palestinian society into a vicious circle.
The fund provides Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who are convicted of attacks in Israel with monthly stipends — these become lifetime payments if the prison sentence is at least five years for men or two years for women, with additional grants and priority in civil service employment upon their release. People who spend three to five years in prison are granted $580 a month, which is an average Palestinian income. The longer the sentence — meaning the more severe the crime — the higher the payment. For people serving 20 years, the monthly grant is $2,900, with special bonuses for convicts’ spouses and children.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas won’t stop paying them, plain and simple. In most Palestinians’ eyes, these people are resistance fighters, who have sacrificed their lives or personal freedom for the national cause. It is thus no wonder that one of the strongest contenders for successor of the PA’s elderly leader is Marwan Barghouti, who is serving a sentence in Israeli jail for five separate counts of murder of civilians.
Barghouti was behind the much-publicized hunger strike of Palestinian prisoners in April 2017. It wasn’t quite as revolutionary and glamourous as one would expect, given that most prisoners requested more frequent visits, access to books or other sources of entertainment. However, following Barghouti’s call, West Bank Palestinian businesses and services shut down in solidarity with the prisoners, and daily protests were held both in the West Bank and Gaza, uniting people in the midst of growing tension between the two enclaves ruled by rival political parties.
“By supporting this kind of resistance, Abbas is mobilizing youth energy that might turn against him, and also giving young generation a chance to take part in national struggle,” explained Ido Zelkovitz, Fellow covering Palestinian Politics at the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
Politically, now is not the right time for Abbas to show any weakness. His legal democratic mandate ended nine years ago, but he has refused to organize elections ever since. The U.S. and Israel are ready to turn a blind eye as long as the Palestinian Authority’s forces keep the security situation in the West Bank in check — and if you ask the Israeli security establishment, rather than Israeli politicians, they live up to that obligation.
“Palestinian security cooperation with Israel is the biggest — and perhaps only — success story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the Oslo Agreements,” wrote Michael J. Koplow of Israeli Policy Forum.
However, in the atmosphere of a stalled peace process with Israel, intensified settlement building by Netanyahu’s government, hindered reconciliation with Hamas, and Trump’s obvious tilt toward the Israeli side — a president who rules West Bank with an iron fist, whose militia beats up its own Palestinian brethren in prisons for suspected terrorist activities, can easily look like a traitor in the Palestinian public’s eyes.
The only way Abbas can look like he is committed to his people’s struggle is, ironically, to pay the same men and women whom he may have arrested for terrorist activities at some point — if they manage to turn their plan into action.
Leveraging this struggle on the financial front opens the door to another problem for the Palestinian leader. He became bitterly aware of this in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, which has drawn a rather lukewarm reaction from Arab countries. For Middle Eastern leaders, involved in various regional conflicts and shifts, Palestinians are low on the priority list. Foreign funding for the PA, which is one of its main sources of income, has dropped by 50 percent compared to the last four years, constituting only a quarter of its budget.
However, the possible fallout of a financial crisis in the Palestinian territories isn’t exclusively Abbas’ problem. “There’s a growing risk of a security escalation sometime this year due to developments on many fronts, but especially the Palestinian one,” Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot warned in his interview for Haaretz.
Over the next few months, there will be a number of politically and historically charged commemorations — including the annual Land Day, Nakba Day and Israeli Independence Day — and protests have the capacity to turn more violent in the atmosphere of Jerusalem recognition, national divisions and the bottled, ambivalent anger that Palestinians harbor towards both Israel and their own leadership.
Pointing to all the problems that could arise from challenging the security and socio-economic status quo is a legitimate concern. It can be argued that Trump’s decisions may be right individually – but enforcing them all at the same time could push Palestinians to the breaking point. Another reasonable guess could be that any of these moves, no matter who makes them and when, are bound to create tremors in the region.
This brings the conversation to the final question: How long can the status quo last? And if it’s not to be challenged now, or in five years, then when? If Israel is in the position not to waive an inch of land as long as Palestinians nurture political violence and rejection of the Jewish state’s existence, how long are Palestinians comfortable with waiting without changing? Another 70 years?
The principle upon which the untouchable Martyr Fund is based is precisely the source of soul searching and change that needs to take place in order to break out of the multi-decade status quo. In a society where political violence can be turned into a lucrative source of income, and pointless death is glorified as one’s ultimate honor and success, what kind of future or peace can Palestinian youth hope for? Ultimately, even if one puts aside the moral abhorrence of an authority that is paying citizens to murder civilians, the culture and narrative perpetuated by the glorification of Palestinian “shaheeds” or “resistance fighters” nurtures a nation that is dead before it is even born.