TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — I pay lots of taxes. Some of my money supports U.S. special forces, and that pleases me. I have no problem helping fund the U.S. Park Service or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I am, however, a tad uneasy about my tax dollars — and yours — going to support terrorists.
You think I’m joking? The U.S. government gives more than $400 million a year to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Last week, the Israeli prime minister’s office presented figures on the PA’s payments to terrorists imprisoned in Israel: In 2011-12, the PA’s Ministry of Prisoners Affairs transferred $150 million to imprisoned terrorists, released terrorists and the families of terrorists. Some prisoners are better paid than Palestinian police officers.
One might argue that these payments are charity — that most of the money goes to women and children who have no breadwinner at home. However, Palestinian Minister of Prisoners’ Affairs Issa Karake has not made that argument. He recently said that the salaries are paid “out of esteem for [the] sacrifice and struggle” of those who, under Palestinian laws, are seen as “martyrs,” “prisoners of war” and resisters of “occupation.”
In other words, both incentives and rewards are in place for the killing of Israelis (and, in some cases, Americans and other foreigners) anywhere in Israel — not only in the so-called Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
The salaries reflect the severity of the crimes. A terrorist serving a five- to 10-year sentence gets $1,200 a month, a terrorist serving 25 to 30 years receives $2,900, and those serving sentences of more than 30 years — for example, for the mass murder of women and children — is eligible for $3,500.
At a congressional hearing in Washington in April, Rep. Randy Weber, Texas Republican, asked Assistant Secretary of State Anne W. Patterson: “If the PA is paying for terrorists in prison, we ought to also be willing to hit them with some economic sanctions of that sort, don’t you agree?” Ms. Patterson replied: “I think they plan to phase it out.”
Two months later, Hamas, the U.S.-government-designated terrorist entity that rules Gaza, publicly ended its often lethal, seven-year feud with the PA, which rules the West Bank. The two entities announced a “government of national unity.”
Among the changes this new government has announced: The Ministry of Prisoner Affairs is moving from the PA to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and being renamed the “Authority of Prisoners’ Affairs.”
The PLO, and its political party, Fatah, are usually described as the main forces within the PA. In fact, there are no clear lines separating the three — and all are headed by Mahmoud Abbas. (To be fair, Mr. Abbas has said many times that he opposes terrorism, that it is unhelpful to the Palestinian cause. Also to be fair, he has never taken serious steps to end anti-Israeli incitement or eliminate financial incentives for terrorism.)
Speaking on official PA TV on June 5, PA spokesman Ehab Bessaiso explained with refreshing candor the reason for the name change and bureaucratic shuffle. Doing so, he said, will “provide political and legal cover” and “eliminate arguments … that [foreign] aid money [to the PA] is going to the prisoners.”
The interviewer asked if it was correct to say that the prisoners’ “rights — under a ministry that became an authority — will remain the same.” Mr. Bessaiso said that was correct: Salaries will continue to be paid as usual, with no changes, no interruptions.
Where the PLO and Fatah get their funds is something of a mystery. Presumably, they come from the PA but also probably from the Palestine National Fund (PNF), which has been described in the past as a PLO clearinghouse. Testifying recently before the House Foreign Affairs’ Middle East and North Africa subcommittee, my colleague Jonathan Schanzer recommended that Congress attempt to determine whether the United States directly or indirectly funds the PNF.
Under current U.S. law, aid is prohibited to any Palestinian government that has “undue” Hamas presence or influence. The Obama administration argues that despite the creation of the unity government, so long as the ministries within the “unity” government are run by “technocrats” with no formal Hamas affiliations, American funds may continue to flow. The administration adds that these funds provide “leverage.”
Republican Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Marco Rubio of Florida don’t see it quite that way. They have termed the White House position an “end run” around the law and called for a suspension and review of aid to the PA. Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, has suggested that, at the least, further conditions should be attached to U.S. assistance. On June 2, Rep. Nina Lowey, New York Democrat, said that unless Hamas adopts pro-peace policies, “funding for this unity government is in jeopardy.”
Ten days after she said that, three Israelis teenagers (one of them also a U.S. citizen) were kidnapped while hitchhiking near the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion. On Monday, their bodies were found, partially buried, less than 12 miles from where they had been abducted.
Israeli authorities have named two Hamas members as suspects, adding that the pair acted with the knowledge and approval of senior Hamas political officials.
Should any of those responsible for the kidnappings and killings end up in an Israeli prison, they may be eligible for $3,500 a month. Some of that money may come from American taxpayers like me and you. I can imagine better uses for our hard-earned dollars. We will soon learn how many members of Congress agree.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.