By Jonathan Cristol
President Donald Trump wrapped up his trip to the Middle East without any particular movement toward a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The only person that might be surprised by this outcome is Trump himself, whose unique mixture of arrogance and ignorance leads him to think he can succeed where so many others have failed. This confidence comes despite having no particular knowledge of the region, the history, the people, or the problems. Nor does he have a deep bench of experts familiar with the previous negotiations between the two sides.
Trump doesn’t realize how complicated these issues are and that even the most seemingly straightforward problem is not as simple as it might appear. There is no better example of this complexity than the issue of Palestinian Authority payments to the families of terrorists. In his visit to Bethlehem, Trump said, “Peace can never take root in an environment where violence is tolerated, funded, and even rewarded,” a reference to these payments.
It is not just Trump that focuses on the payments. The U.S. Congress consistently threatens to cut U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, which in 2016 totaled $357 million, if President Mahmoud Abbas does not stop them. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to Abbas just before Trump’s visit, “You want to take a step toward real peace? Cancel the payments to murderers. Sponsor peace, not terror.” Yet canceling these payments may actually, and unfortunately, be counterproductive.
The Palestinian Authority spends a total of roughly $310 million per year, 7.6 percent of its annual budget, on payments to terrorists’ families and terrorists released from prison. The Foundation for the Care of the Families of Martyrs, part of the Ministry of Social Affairs, spent $173 million in 2016 on payments to families. The Program for the Protection of Prisoners and their Families, part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, received $137 million from the Palestinian Authority for payments to prisoners’ families. Palestinians released from Israeli jails receive monthly payments and other preferential economic treatment, including exemption from state tuition fees and free health insurance.
That salaries of imprisoned or released terrorists and families of “martyrs” amount to 29.6 percent of the foreign aid the Palestinian Authority receives is disturbing and morally repugnant, and it should be noted that donor nations do try to prevent this use of funds. And yet the payments should not be stopped cold turkey. They are a problem, but they are not the primary problem.
There are 35,100 families in the West Bank and Gaza who receive these payments. The financial support for the families of prisoners and “martyrs” is extraordinarily popular among the Palestinian public, far more popular than is Mahmoud Abbas (as recently as March 2017, two-thirds of Palestinians demanded his resignation) or the Palestinian Authority itself. If Abbas were to stop these payments, his abysmal support would plummet even further. If the U.S. Congress were to cease assistance to the Palestinian Authority, it would have the same effect.
Moreover, a top-down directive to end the payments might only halt them temporarily. Hamas would be quite happy to assume this responsibility; it supports an even more extensive payment system in Gaza, and Hamas’ benefactors would be all too eager to contribute funding. So while it may seem like ending these payments would be a step forward for peace, it would actually be two steps backward.
The problem is not the payments per se. The problem is the glorification of terrorism and martyrdom. If suicide bombing, stabbing, kidnapping, auto attacks, and mass murders against Israelis were unpopular, then it would surely be unpopular to provide for the families of the attackers. Unless there is a societal change and people start to see terrorists not as heroes but as “evil losers,” peace will be impossible. When the Palestinian population, not Israel or the United States, demands an end to these payments as an affront to their own sensibilities, then we will know that the type of broad societal shift that is necessary to end the conflict is underway.
Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathancristol
[Photo courtesy of Phoenix B 1of3]