Why the discourse about Palestinian payments to prisoners’ families is distorted and misleading

Palestinians protest against an Israeli decision to trim funds over prisoner stipends, in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, February 19, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

The war of narratives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has intensified as the Trump administration is poised to leave the scene. As the New York Times recently reported, the Palestinian Authority (PA), whose relations with President Donald Trump were poisoned by his one-sided Middle East plan, is eager to build a new relationship with the incoming Joe Biden administration. Supporters of Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank would prefer to prevent this from happening.

One of the issues standing in the way of U.S.-PA rapprochement is a PA system of monthly payments to families of prisoners held in Israel for political crimes, and to families of those killed in conflict, including those charged and convicted by Israel of terrorism. In 2017, Congress adopted legislation — the Taylor Force Act —  which restricts assistance to the PA until it stops such payments. PA critics have labeled the system “pay to slay” — a clever and memorable name tag, but one that’s bigoted and distorted. It also distracts from the central culprit: 53 years of an Israeli occupation that has stunted and broken hundreds of thousands of lives.

“Pay to slay” suggests that the PA pays Palestinians in order to kill Israelis and, worse, that those who commit violence against Israel are motivated to do so principally by monetary compensation for their families. Neither stands scrutiny, and making such insinuations is wrong and incendiary.

Let’s start with the facts. Whatever one says about the PA and its president, Mahmoud Abbas — including its governance shortcomings, divisions, and political paralysis — Palestinian policing and security coordination with Israel have been an essential and highly successful element of Israeli security for years. This is to the chagrin of many Palestinians who are frustrated that PA security forces cannot, in parallel, protect them from the reach of Israeli forces or settlers. As one analyst put it, such coordination is “the one thing that has managed to keep the West Bank under control, and prevent events … from setting off a chain reaction that could end in a third intifada.” Abbas himself has consistently opposed violent resistance, including opposing the Palestinian embrace of the second intifada, the uprising that followed the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2000.

The idea that payments to families are key drivers of violence doesn’t add up. Israeli collective punishment against the families of those accused of terrorism can be swift and severe. It can involve the demolition of the family home, sometimes rendering elderly parents, siblings, spouses, and children homeless — a practice that violates the Geneva Convention and has been condemned by international organizations and human rights groups. Any would-be attacker that might theoretically be motivated by family support payments in his or her absence would have to take these devastating factors into account. Punishment aside, one would have to assume that Palestinians are unlike other people in being able to ignore not only the personal risk of being killed or jailed, but also the emotional devastation and disruption that this would cause to the lives of their loved ones, simply for the promise of monetary stipends for the family.

This isn’t to say that payments to prisoners’ families by the Palestinians, and the demolition of family homes by Israel, are non-factors in any calculation of a would-be perpetrator. The point is that the principal motives under occupation are usually political. Those living under occupation are often prepared to act and to pay a price, with or without either of the above practices in play. Also consider the significant variations in the frequency of violence over time, even as these practices have been in place.

Understanding the context

The context for the broad support among Palestinians for those imprisoned by Israel is that they see most of those jailed as victims and resisters of an illegal occupation. By 2009, it was already estimated that 700,000 Palestinians, including thousands of minors, had been detained since the Israeli occupation began; between 2017 and 2019 alone, 5,000 Palestinian minors between the ages of 12 and 18 were arrested. Few families have been untouched among the five million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

As an occupying power, Israel readily labels Palestinians as “terrorists,” including those who may not have been charged or convicted of a crime. Some are considered “terrorists” by common international definitions of terrorism adopted by independent human rights organizations, such as in cases of attacks on civilians; others are not. Prisoners include hundreds held for long periods in administrative detention without charge or trial. Unlike their settler neighbors who are tried for crimes under Israeli civil laws, Palestinians are tried in military courts — including those charged with nonviolent speech or protest activity — which have a near-100% conviction rate.

Thus, Palestinian attitudes toward the prisoner family payment system have to be understood through the lens of their lived experiences. Under occupation, Palestinians have few protections from violence carried out by Israeli settlers or soldiers. According to the Israeli group Yesh Din, between 2005 and 2019 over 90% of cases of crimes against Palestinians were closed without any indictments. It is also all too common for Israeli soldiers to receive only minor punishments after being found guilty of taking a Palestinian life without cause, such as in the recent case of Eyad al-Hallaq, a young autistic man chased down and killed by a border policeman while walking with a surgical face mask and rubber gloves in hand. Families of Israelis who commit crimes against Palestinians certainly don’t suffer house demolitions, and in fact can find support: For example, the Israeli NGO Honenu (which receives tax-exempt contributions in the U.S. and Israel) has provided family support aid to Israelis in the wake of crimes against Palestinians (and even to the assassin of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Amir, and his wife).

In this context — with universal mistrust of the Israeli occupation system  — there is strong public support among Palestinians for prisoners and their families. The PA has also argued that if innocent families of those imprisoned or killed are left without support, more would be radicalized, increasing rather than decreasing the likelihood of violence.

A Symptom, not a root cause

Both sides have suffered greatly from this conflict. Israelis have suffered hundreds of civilian casualties, particularly during the violent second intifada. Still, throughout the Israeli occupation, the overwhelming majority of those killed in conflict have been Palestinians; from 2000 to 2014, for example, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem recorded 8,166 conflict-related deaths. Of those, 7,065 (87%) were Palestinian and 1,101 (13%) were Israeli. Over 100,000 Palestinians have been wounded since 2008, and over 90% of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have known nothing but life under occupation. There is no end in sight to land expropriation, lack of basic freedoms, and lack of access to impartial justice.

Eager to turn the page on the Trump administration and reach out to the new administration, the PA has now signaled its openness to address the current structure of its prisoner payments policy, though it remains unclear how, especially given how the Palestinian public feels about this issue. But the worst thing for our public discourse would be to pretend that this practice — not the unending occupation — is a root cause, rather than a symptom, of the ongoing conflict and the central problem that needs urgent tackling. That would not serve the goal of a just peace that’s sorely needed.