Why is Israel undermining efforts to halt PA terror stipends?

The Jewish state’s recent announcement of a 155 million “loan” to the cash-strapped P.A. makes a mockery of Israeli law, and weakens efforts to combat Palestinian terror incitement.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, on Sept. 3, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, on Sept. 3, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Yossi Kuperwasser
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

Following the Aug. 29 meeting in Ramallah of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, Gantz announced that Israel would “loan” the P.A. half a billion shekels ($155 million) to keep it afloat over the coming months.

At the same time, Israel is belatedly implementing a freeze on the tax revenues it transfers to the P.A., in protest against the stipends the P.A. disburses to convicted terrorists and their families. By coincidence, the sum being withheld is similar to that of the “loan”—about 600 million shekels ($186 million) per year, or NIS 50 million ($15.5 million) per month.

(This amount does not reflect the total sum paid by the P.A. to convicted terrorists and the families of deceased terrorists, but rather the amount Israel can confirm with certainty that the P.A. paid in the previous year.)

This move makes a mockery not only of Israel’s protests against the P.A.’s terror stipends but also of Israeli law, which mandates that the government take action against the P.A. over these stipends. The P.A., for its part, insists on paying these salaries to all imprisoned (and released) terrorists under a Palestinian law that defines them as the “fighting sector of Palestinian society.”

Israel has severely impaired its ability to demand that the P.A. cease its vile practice of encouraging and inciting terrorism, whether via terror stipends, public statements, school curriculums or any other means. In addition, it has weakened its own ability to influence the international parties that could pressure the P.A. to end these practices and cease undermining Israel’s legitimacy in the international arena, including at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

To justify the Gantz-Abbas meeting and the “loan,” many claims are being made, most of them unfounded. For example, it is alleged that the P.A. may collapse due to the severe economic crisis it finds itself in as the result of the cessation of Arab and international aid, as well as Israel’s putative measures. Also raised is the argument that Israel is required to support Abbas in the wake of Hamas’s strategic achievements in “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May, and its growing stature in the Palestinian political sphere.

These, coupled with the damage to Abbas’s prestige and status following the Abraham Accords, the cancellation of P.A. parliamentary and presidential elections and the death of opposition activist Nizar Benat after his arrest by the P.A., have all destabilized the P.A. and strengthened Hamas. So, the argument goes, Israel must reinforce Abbas so that he can deal with the threats to his regime.

There is also a claim that Abbas opposes anti-Israel terrorism and that cooperation with the P.A.’s security forces is essential to curbing terrorism.

These statements, usually attributed to members of the security establishment and international entities, are heard so frequently that it seems that they are indisputable certainties.

In practice, Abbas leads the ideological and political campaign against Israel, and does not rule out the use of violence of any kind in this context. He guarantees any Palestinian imprisoned for terrorist activities a much higher salary than they would receive in any other job—and that salary increases during the years of his/her imprisonment. Thus, the more serious the attack and sentence, the higher the stipend.

Abbas also guarantees that terrorists imprisoned for more than five years will be given a position in the P.A., with time served counting towards seniority. In some cases, released terrorists are absorbed into the P.A. security apparatus. Abbas is decisive and determined to continue paying the salaries of terrorists at all costs, out of his belief that terrorists are heroes; his admiration is expressed in his meetings with their families.

On June 29-30 an academic conference was held at the Open Quds University in Ramallah under the title, “The Zionist Narrative – Between Reversal and Cancellation.” The conference was sponsored by Abbas, who opened it with a recorded speech in which he proudly noted that international public opinion had recently undergone a gradual shift toward accepting the Palestinian narrative. Abbas is one of his most prominent designers and promoters of this narrative, and the other speakers at the conference, including P.A. Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, echoed his remarks.

According to the outlandish and anti-Semitic Abbas/Palestinian narrative, the Jews are a religious group, not a people, and have never had sovereignty over Palestine. There is no such thing as the “Land of Israel,” and the Jews never had a temple on what they call the “Temple Mount” (known to Arabs as “al-Haram as-Sharif”) and therefore have no right to self-determination and certainly not in Palestine. Moreover, Ashkenazi Jews are descendants of the Khazars, and have nothing to do with the Jews who lived in Palestine until 2,000 years ago.

On the other hand, Abbas argues, the Palestinians are an ancient people in the land, descendants of the Canaanites and the other peoples who lived there before the arrival of the Israelites. Zionism is the cruel and villainous creation of the colonialists and imperialists who sought to dispose of the Jews because of their intolerable qualities, and to use them as a bridgehead in their fight against Muslims. Zionism collaborated with the Nazis in an effort to persuade Jews to immigrate to Palestine, and adopted Nazi characteristics themselves over time, according to Abbas.

The inevitable end will be the return of the Jews to the places from whence they came, the Palestinian position states. This goal will be achieved through a multi-dimensional struggle—which also includes violence. All types of violence are morally justified in Abbas’s eyes, but he believes that after the Oslo Accords, and especially after the second intifada, the focus should be on what he calls “popular resistance,” which includes riots, stonings, firebombings, stabbings and vehicular assaults.

Hamas, on the other hand, believes there is a need for direct, military-style terror attacks in Judea and Samaria (a planned attack of this kind was recently thwarted) and sometimes from the Gaza Strip, though it also uses “softer” terrorism such as launching incendiary balloons into Israel and encouraging riots along the border fence.

According to this narrative, it is the Palestinians who are the victims of the conflict, and who must perpetuate their narrative until all their goals are achieved. To this end, they have the right to use all forms of “struggle,” and no one, certainly not Israel and the West, who are responsible for their suffering in their eyes, have the right to criticize them. The narrative also emphasizes that the Palestinian struggle is national and Islamic at the same time, and ultimately states that in light of all this, all of Palestine is included, and Israel should not be recognized in any way as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which, at any rate, does not exist. At most, it is possible to temporarily accept the existence of an “Israeli people,” a new concept referring to Israel as the state of all its citizens.

After Abbas received the Israeli pledge to help him financially, he used his annual address to the U.N. General Assembly to slander Israel, calling it a racist state that conducts ethnic cleansing and violates international law. He emphasized the “Israeli massacres” and crimes from 1948 and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their properties inside Israel, admitted that Palestinian textbooks are promoting the hostile Palestinian narrative against Israel, and insisted that he will keep paying salaries to arrested terrorists and to the families of deceased terrorists. Moreover, shortly before he hosted a delegation from Israel’s Meretz Party that included two Israeli ministers, he consoled the families of two Palestinian terrorists who were killed by the Israeli military as they prepared to carry out attacks.

This is the worldview of Gantz’s interlocutor. He is willing to continue security cooperation with Israel because curbing Hamas serves his present political interests—but he is willing to cooperate with Hamas when it is convenient.

Fears of a P.A. collapse are exaggerated as long as Abbas rules. Although the P.A. is in distress—politically more than economically—it has already endured much worse crises. Last year, during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, the P.A. on its own initiative stopped receiving taxes from Israel and halted security cooperation. Nevertheless, the P.A. continued to function, and the scope of terrorism did not rise. This is due in part to the fact that the bulk of counterterrorism operations are run by the Israeli security organizations. The Palestinian contribution is secondary. Also, today, the P.A. is able, contrary to American warnings, to function even without the promised Israeli assistance. And of course, if the P.A. feels genuine distress, it can simply stop paying salaries to terrorists, and halt funding for the effort to prosecute Israel’s top echelons in the International Criminal Court.

Despite all this, Gantz reportedly did not ask for any quid pro quo for the loan, or for meeting additional Palestinian requests. He exposed the government’s weakness regarding the Palestinians and acted contrary to the spirit of Israeli law. Worse, despite the P.A.’s satisfaction with Israel’s steps, they will not necessarily yield the desired results.

The Israeli security system and its head for some reason adhere to the belief that an agreement must be reached with the P.A., at the cost of Israeli security concessions and despite the P.A.’s worldview and objectives. They attach great importance to the de-escalation of violence in Judea and Samaria in the short term, and believe that the best way to ensure this outcome is by improving the Palestinians’ economic situation. However, even if this is true (and there is no factual basis for believing that it is), it need not be realized via the transfer of money to the P.A. so that it can in turn disburse salaries to terrorists.

For example, it is possible to increase the number of Israeli work permits issued to Palestinians. This is the main economic engine of the economy in the West Bank and is consistent with the accurate assessment that for most Palestinians, improving quality of life is just as important as the struggle against Zionism.

Chaining Israeli policy to the goal of achieving short-term quiet will impair Israel’s ability to deal with the Palestinian effort, led by Abbas, to spreads the Palestinian narrative at home (through incitement) and in the international system (through the campaign to delegitimize Israel). Already, the Palestinians have achievements on the American left—the set of concepts they are trying to instill in the international system (Israel is a racist and colonial apartheid state that illegally occupies Palestinian territory) has been implanted into broad circles of the Western left and threatens to seep into the center of the political map. This is a threat for which Israel must prepare. Tolerating Palestinian incitement in order to strengthen Abbas and gain temporary quiet is detrimental to this struggle. Quiet can and should be achieved in the short term, but by other means.

Another compelling explanation for Israel’s “loan” to the P.A. is that it was intended to please the American administration, which does not believe it is possible in the current circumstances to promote a political settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the U.S. administration believes it is important to appear attentive to the Palestinians, unlike its predecessor, and has come to their aid by preserving the viability of the two-state concept and improving their quality of life.

The administration is also convinced that the P.A. is suffering from an unprecedented financial crisis, but is unable to transfer U.S. aid because of U.S. legal restrictions, as long as the P.A. continues to pay salaries to terrorists and their families. The administration’s attempts to circumvent the law have been blocked by members of Congress. It seems that Israel was asked at the meeting between Biden and Bennett to solve the problem. If Israel had received from the Americans a significant incentive in other areas that are important to its security, then that might justify Gantz’s strange move. However, gratitude and appreciation are inadequate compensation.

IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He formerly served as director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the research division of IDF Military Intelligence.

This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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