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Seeking to restart with Biden, Palestinians consider ending prisoners’ payments

JERUSALEM – In a bold move to renovate their sullied image in Washington, Palestinians are laying the groundwork for an overhaul of one of their most expensive but controversial practices, officials say: compensating those serving their sentences in Israeli jails , including for violent attacks.

This policy, which critics call “pay to kill”, has long been denounced by Israel and its supporters as incitement to terrorism because it assures potential attackers that their dependents will be taken care of. And since the payments are based largely on the length of the prison sentence, critics say the most heinous crimes are the most rewarded.

In a bipartisan rebuke to the system, Congress has repeatedly passed legislation to reduce aid to Palestinians by the amount of these payments. The payments were cited by the Trump administration when it cut funding and took other punitive measures against Palestinians starting in 2018.

Now, however, Palestinian officials keen to make a fresh start with the new Biden administration – and to see those punitive measures rescinded – are listening to advice from sympathetic Democrats who have repeatedly warned that without ending the payments it would be impossible. for the new administration to do the heavy lifting on their behalf.

The proposal drawn up in Ramallah would give families of Palestinian prisoners allowances based on their financial need instead of the length of their detention, said Qadri Abu Bakr, chairman of the Palestinian Authority’s Prisoner Affairs Commission.

“Economic needs must be the basis,” Abu Bakr said in a telephone interview. “A single man shouldn’t earn the same as someone who has a family.”

The plan, which has not been publicly announced, is just the latest in a wave of measures taken by the Palestinians in an attempt to restart their international relations. On Tuesday, they accepted widespread diplomatic pressure and resumed cooperation with Israel on security and civil matters after a six-month boycott. And on Wednesday, they said they sent their envoys back to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, after recalling them to protest those countries’ normalization agreements with Israel.

Details of the proposed changes to the prisoner payment system have not been finalized, Abu Bakr said, and will require the approval of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

It is not yet clear whether decoupling the payments from the crime will satisfy the most ardent critics of the system if the payments to prisoners continue.

But it is almost certain that the proposal will spark intense repression from many Palestinians, who have long revered prisoners as heroes and freedom fighters.

The status of prisoners is perhaps the most emotionally charged issue on the Palestinian street: one of the biggest protest movements in the West Bank in recent years has been to support prisoners who staged a hunger strike in 2017. In May, when some Palestinian banks complied with an Israeli military order preventing them from distributing payments to the families of prisoners, armed men opened fire on several bank branches.

Palestinians have made payments to prisoners of Israel for decades, defending them as crucial compensation for an unjust military justice system, and necessary to provide income for families who have lost their main breadwinner.

Under the current system, the Palestinian Authority pays higher allowances to prisoners who have spent longer in prison, with little regard for the economic well-being of their families. For example, someone who has spent 35 years in prison could earn thousands of dollars a month; someone in prison for four years could get hundreds.

Ashraf al-Ajrami, a former minister for prisoner affairs, said he fully expected the public to “react with anger” to the proposed changes. But he acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority was eager to change the system because of the diplomatic toll it had cost.

When asked about the plan, relatives of the detainees expressed disbelief and disgust.

“It is 100% unacceptable and shameful,” said Qassam Barghouti, son of Marwan Barghouti, who has been convicted by Israel of five counts of murder and is serving several life sentences.

“Prisoners are not a social protection problem,” he added. “People are better paid for having spent long periods in prison to recognize their sacrifices: the more time you spend behind bars, the more important your company is.”

Officials said they also plan to require released prisoners to take public sector jobs. Currently, many former prisoners receive a monthly pension amount to stay inactive, said Abu Bakr.

“We shouldn’t be paying people salaries for doing nothing,” he said, noting that his committee had already distributed questionnaires to former detainees on their professional preferences. “They should work for them.”

Officials said they also plan to review payments to families of attackers and others killed by Israelis – another extremely sensitive issue among Palestinians, who call them martyrs. While officials have said the Palestinians intend to begin strictly linking these payments to financial need, details of how they will do so have remained unclear.

The details will matter. Israelis who have insisted on payments for years said they should be convinced the changes were more than cosmetic.

“They finally understand that they have to do something,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired military intelligence general who is one of the payments’ most vocal critics. “That’s a good thing. But we have to be vigilant. I’m still suspicious.

And some critics over-consider payments to families of prisoners.

“A terrorist should know that when he takes part in terrorism, his family will not receive any money from the Palestinian Authority because he entered prison in Israel,” said Avi Dichter, a Likud MP.

Since the start of last year, Israel has pressured the Palestinians to stop payments by withholding part of the more than $ 100 million it collects in taxes each month on their behalf.

Talks aimed at getting the Palestinians to end the system became urgent about two months ago, several people involved said. Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, as well as diplomats from Norway and Germany, have been described as having helped pressure the Palestinians.

As a Biden victory began to look more likely, Washington think tanks organized numerous Zoom calls with Palestinian officials in which Democratic officials explained why it was vital to end the payments system if the Palestinians had any hope of getting Mr. Biden to quash the Trump administration from moves – like reopening a Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington that Mr. Trump had shut down.

Mr Biden and his vice president Kamala Harris have pledged to restore at least some aid and reopen the diplomatic mission.

But in practice, participants in the appeals told Palestinians that the Biden administration – with little bandwidth for the Middle East and needing to manage all of its political capital – would be unable to do much for them in the Middle East. less than “paying to kill”. has been abolished. An act of Congress requires this system to be reformed before much of the aid can be restored.

A State Department official said the United States “strongly condemns the Palestinian Authority’s practice of paying terrorists or their families, and would welcome its immediate cessation.”

Nimrod Novik, former aide to Prime Minister Shimon Peres and longtime advocate for a two-state solution, said the Palestinian leadership was easily persuaded. But they still had to find a formula that would satisfy scrutiny from both sides of the conflict, and then figure out how to “put a bulletproof vest around” to resist what was to be an angry reaction from the Palestinians. . Public.

Like others, worried about popular discontent, Novik questioned the wisdom of publicly debating the proposal now.

“The way to sell it is if it comes in a package,” Novik said, for example in exchange for a concrete decision from the new Biden administration. “Now it’s isolated, like a down payment for goodwill. Once it is in the public domain, the price will be paid. “

Lara Jakes contributed reporting from Washington.

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