By Ramzy Baroud
A scheme is underway to withhold or reduce payments made by the Palestinian Authority to the families of Palestinian prisoners. According to Israeli media, the US Biden administration has requested that the PA overhauls its support system for Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinian leadership had previously expressed willingness to engage the US in a “discussion.”
According to Israel’s Channel 12, the Biden administration has called on President Mahmoud Abbas to stop paying stipends to Palestinian prisoners’ families and to instead consider a “welfare” system. For example, prisoners aged over 60 would receive payments as “retired PA employees,” while those under 60 would be paid as “PA employees.”
This is meant as some kind of compromise. Unlike previous American and Israeli attempts to cut off support to the families of Palestinian prisoners, this time the PA seems willing to consider alternatives to the existing systems. Last November, Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh stated that, “if anyone has reservations about this or that section of the law, we can discuss it.”
Shtayyeh was referring to the Palestinian law that allows the PA to support Palestinian prisoners and their families as a pact of solidarity. After all, these prisoners are facing horrific circumstances due to their acts of resistance to the Israeli occupation.
Of course, Israel doesn’t see it this way. For Tel Aviv, any act of Palestinian resistance is unlawful and every resister is a “terrorist.” This should hardly be surprising, as Israel does not see itself as an occupier or the Palestinians as a people deserving of justice and freedom.
Also unsurprising is the American position. Washington agrees with the Israeli depiction of Palestinian resistance as being terrorist in nature and has, for years, attempted to block any aid from reaching the families of Palestinian prisoners. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump withheld funding from the PA and the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, citing the PA’s financial support for Palestinian prisoners and their families.
Israel subsequently followed suit, as it unlawfully withheld tax payments collected on behalf of the PA — a most unfair system instituted by the 1994 Paris Protocol. The money withheld by Israel constituted nearly half of the entire PA budget. This outright theft was carried out as a form of pressure, under various guises and with no international monitoring.
Eventually, in November 2020, Israel once more began transferring funds to PA coffers, but while keeping a portion of the money that, according to Israeli estimates, was equivalent to the payments made to prisoners’ families.
To cope with the resulting financial crisis, the PA instituted various budget cuts that mostly affected PA employees and prisoners, many of whom belonged to rival groups, whether in the West Bank or the besieged Gaza Strip. The disproportionately massive spending on the PA security apparatus, especially the branches involved in the security coordination with Israel, was left untouched.
Since the start of Joe Biden’s presidential term last year, the PA has promoted the unfounded notion that he is better for the Palestinians, simply because the new administration gave partial political validation to Abbas — who was completely shunned by Trump — and restored US aid. Aside from that, there has been no evidence of the supposed pro-Palestinian agenda of Biden and his administration.
Indeed, the Biden White House has pledged not to reverse any of the illegal steps taken by Trump, which, among other concessions, legitimized the Israeli occupation of Palestinian East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights. The US is also yet to reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem, which served as a de facto American diplomatic presence in the Occupied Territories. Even the promised restoration of the Palestinian Liberation Organization office in Washington is yet to be fulfilled due to strong opposition from Israel and its allies on Capitol Hill.
More than a year has passed since the start of Biden’s presidency, yet there is still no political horizon, no meaningful American engagement and not even a coherent American outlook. On the contrary, all we have seen is Israel’s insistence on entrenching its occupation, widening the circle of violence and expanding its illegal settlements, either with an American nod or total disinterest.
Ordinary Palestinians have very little expectation of Washington, as there is no historical evidence demonstrating that the US has ever favored the Palestinian agenda — that of freedom and justice — over the Israeli target of endless occupation and apartheid. While the US Congress is very quick to pass anti-Palestinian measures, pro-Palestinian initiatives — though commendable — have little chance of ever making it into law. For example, the proposed Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act, which was introduced in 2019, attempted to remind the US government of its legal responsibilities under the Foreign Assistance Act so that it might cease funding the military detention of children anywhere in the world, including Israel. The bill didn’t make it to a vote in Congress.
Not only is Israel not held accountable for its continued detention of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children, it is actually dictating US foreign policy, compelling Washington to accept and accommodate its own definitions, priorities and agendas.
The issue of prisoners is a very sensitive one in Palestine. Palestinians consider their prisoners to be heroes of the resistance and their families the collective responsibility of Palestinian communities everywhere. In fact, support for prisoners’ families is the last hold on legitimacy in the hands of the PA. If it loses that, the consequences are sure to be dire.
Perhaps American diplomats could consider an alternative path to fairly address the issue of financial support received by Palestinian prisoners and their families; namely freeing all Palestinian prisoners from Israeli dungeons.
Maybe the discussion should also be expanded to include the freedom of all Palestinians who are experiencing various forms of imprisonment by Israel. Such demands may seem outrageous in view of the current political balances of power, but they are undoubtedly the proper discussion to be had morally and legally.