By Ramzy Baroud
A scheme is underway to withhold or to reduce payments made by the Palestinian Authority to the families of Palestinian prisoners. According to Israeli media, the Biden Administration has requested that the PA entirely overhaul its support system of Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinian leadership had already expressed willingness to engage the US in a ‘discussion’.
According to Israel’s Channel 12, the Biden Administration has called on PA President Mahmoud Abbas to stop paying stipends to Palestinian prisoners’ families and, instead, to consider an alternative ‘welfare’ system. For example, over 60-year-old prisoners would receive payments as if ‘retired PA employees’. Those under 60, according to the report, would be paid as ‘PA employees’.
The above is meant as some kind of a compromise. Unlike previous American and Israeli attempts aimed at cutting off any kind of support to the families of Palestinian prisoners, this time around the PA seems willing to consider alternatives to the existing systems.
PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh had already expressed his willingness to consider the American concerns. Last November, Shtayyeh had stated that “if anyone has reservations about this or that section of the law, we can discuss it.”
By ‘law’, 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 Palestinian 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 Palestinian 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, too, agrees with the Israeli depiction of Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorists’ and has, for years, attempted to block any aid from reaching families of Palestinian prisoners.
In 2018, former US President Donald Trump withheld funding from the Palestinian Authority and also from the UN refugee agency for Palestinians, UNRWA, citing the PA financial support of Palestinian prisoners and their families.
The following year, Israel followed suit, as it unlawfully withheld tax payments collected on behalf of the PA – a most unfair system instituted by the so-called Paris Protocol. The money withheld by Israel constitutes nearly half of the entire PA budget. This outright theft by Israel is carried out as a form of pressure, under various guises and with no international monitoring.
Eventually, in November 2020, Israel once more began transferring the payment to PA coffers, but while still keeping a portion of the money, which, according to Israeli estimations, was equivalent to payments made to prisoners’ families.
To cope with the crisis, the PA instituted various budget cuts that mostly affected PA employees and prisoners – many of whom belonged to PA rival groups, whether in the West Bank or the besieged Gaza Strip. The disproportionately massive spending on the PA security apparatus, especially branches that are involved in the so-called security coordination between the PA and Israel, was left untouched.
Since the start of Biden’s presidential term, the PA has promoted the unfunded notion that Biden is better for Palestinians, simply because the new administration gave partial political validation to Mahmoud 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 Joe Biden and his administration.
Indeed, the Biden Administration 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. Moreover, the US is yet to reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem, which served as a de facto American diplomatic representation in the occupied territories. Even the restoration of the PLO office in Washington D.C. is yet to be carried out, due to strong opposition by Israel and its allies on Capitol Hill.
Over 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. To the contrary, all that 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 disinterest.
Ordinary Palestinians, of course, have very little expectations of Washington as there is no historical evidence to demonstrate that the US has ever favored the Palestinian agenda – that of freedom and justice – over the Israeli one, of endless occupation and apartheid. While the US Congress is very quick to pass anti-Palestinian measures, pro-Palestinian inititatives, though commendable, have very little chance of ever making it into law. For example, H.R. 2407 – “Promoting Human Rights For Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act”, has, for years, attempted to remind the US government of its legal responsibility under the Foreign Assistance Act so that it may cease funding military detention of children anywhere in the world, including in Palestine.
Not only is Israel not held accountable at all for the continued detention of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children, it is actually dictating American foreign policy, compelling Washington to accept and accommodate Israeli definitions, priorities and agendas.
The issue of Palestinian prisoners is a very sensitive topic in Palestine. Palestinians consider their prisoners heroes of the resistance and their families as a collective responsibility of Palestinian communities everywhere. In fact, support for Palestinian 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 can 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 their own forms of imprisonment by Israel. Such demands may seem outrageous in view of the current political balances of power but they are certainly morally and legally the proper discussion to be had.