Why the PA can’t — and won’t — stop paying prisoners’ families

Israel’s demand that the PA stop paying the families of Palestinian prisoners is part of an intentional strategy to block any progress towards resolving the conflict. The problem is that it’s working.

By Yoni Mendel

Palestinians hold photos of Palestinian prisoners during a protest to demand the release of their relatives jailed in Israeli prisons, on the Prisoners' Day in the West Bank city of Hebron, on April 17, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinians hold photos of Palestinian prisoners during a protest, demanding release of their relatives jailed in Israeli prisons, on Prisoners’ Day in the West Bank city of Hebron. April 17, 2018. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The Israeli demand that the Palestinian Authority stop paying the families of prisoners in Israeli jails has spread like wildfire over the past year. It has become part of Israel’s hasbara arsenal, heard again and again, mainly whenever Israel fears that the international community — or, worse, the United States — intends to present a peace plan. In those cases, the demand appears to come from everywhere: from Israeli decision-makers and pundits, academics and online comments sections. Thus, it has become a slogan — hollow, yet effective.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the issue of PA payment to prisoners’ families at the center of his speech during the AIPAC Policy Conference last month. “I have a message for Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas],” Netanyahu said. “Stop paying terrorists.”

This Israeli demand has apparently worked its way into the White House. During Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Donald Trump’s meeting in Bethlehem in 2017, Trump reportedly told Abbas, “it is impossible to advance peace while funding terrorism.”

Last September, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely emphasized this message on the eve of White House envoy Jason Greenblatt’s visit. “There’s no sense in negotiating with those who support terrorism and continue to pay the families of terrorists,” Hotovely said.

Indeed, the demand is frequently on the tip of Israeli ministers’ tongues. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Education Minister Naftali Bennet, Science Minister Ofir Akunis, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have all repeatedly called for the PA to stop paying prisoners’ families in the last year.

It is safe to say that the dramatic increase in frequency of this demand’s appearance is not a coincidence, but rather the result of an intentional strategy. By pushing the demand that the PA stop the payments to prisoners’ families, Israel is trying to achieve several goals simultaneously: to portray the PA as a supporter of terror, to shift the blame for the ongoing conflict away from Israel, and to stymie any attempt to renew peace negotiations. The strategy is smart and effective in that the Israeli public — and perhaps the current American administration — largely views the demand as legitimate.

A deeper, critical examination, however, reveals that Israelis who want peace — and all those concerned about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict — should be angry at the current government and the hasbara apparatus. Because the PA obviously cannot accept the Israeli demand in anyway, Israel’s strategy, in practice, amounts to an attempt to prevent any possible progress or resolution to the conflict.

As a reminder: Israel and the Palestinians are anything but at peace. The Palestinians are engaged — still — in an ongoing struggle for their own state and for freedom from the Israeli occupation. As terrible as this sounds to Israeli ears, from the Palestinian perspective the enemy is clearly the Israeli soldier, policeman, security guard, or settler in the West Bank, which for Palestinians (and for every country in the world except for Israel and the U.S.), is called the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

In keeping with this Palestinian perspective, it is not surprising that most of the violent actions for which Palestinians are currently imprisoned in Israeli jails were committed in the Occupied Territories, mostly against soldiers, security guards, and settlers. And while the PA did not send these Palestinians to commit these acts of violence, the PA, within the context of the Palestinian liberation struggle, cannot ignore them.

The issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israel is one of the few issues that transcend the divisions within Palestinian society. It is one of the few points of agreement between Hamas and Fatah. It is almost sacred: marked by official events such as “Palestinian Prisoners Day” and those of the “Palestinian Prisoners Club”; mentioned in nearly every political speech; and part of radio and television programs, which often feature conversations with the families and children of prisoners. In every city, town, and village in the occupied territories, there is someone who knowns someone whose son or daughter is currently imprisoned in Israel on charges that range from rock throwing during protests to violent crimes and even the murder of Israelis.

Palestinians take part in a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 4, 2017. (Flash90)
Palestinians take part in a protest in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 4, 2017. (Flash90)

The PA’s approach to the issue of Palestinian prisoners should be compared to that of any other movement actively fighting for its independence. One could even compare it to the approach of the Zionist movement’s leadership to Jewish prisoners jailed by the British for attacking British soldiers or Arab militias during the Mandate period. In other words, a national liberation movement cannot abandon its fighters imprisoned by the occupying power for crimes committed as part of the national liberation struggle.

Israel’s demand that the PA cease its payments to prisoners’ families has successfully distracted Israelis — and the world — from other, no-less-important issues: the more than half-century-long occupation, the 12-year-long siege of the Gaza Strip, the unilateral “unification” of Jerusalem under Israeli control, and issues related to the Palestinian Nakba that have not been resolved for 70 years (the destruction of villages, the expulsion of people from their homes, the Palestinian right of return), and others.

With its demand, Israel has, at least in its own eyes, checkmated the Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority cannot move in any direction. If it continues to support the families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, it gives credence to the Israeli charge that it supports terrorism, and the Israeli government can continue to maintain the status quo of endless occupation and no peace negotiations. If the PA were to announce an end to financial support to prisoners’ families, it would lose its legitimacy and cease to exist.

This may be a victory for Israeli hasbara, but it is loss for all those concerned with Israel’s future.

Yoni Mendel is the projects manager of the Mediterranean Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and co-editor of the book review section of the Journal of Levantine Studies (JLS). This article was first published in Hebrew by the Forum for Regional Thinking. Read it here.