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Seeking a restart with Biden, the Palestinians are turning their attention to the prisoners’ payments



JERUSALEM – In a bold move to renew their dirty image in Washington, Palestinians are laying the groundwork for reconsidering one of their most intimate but controversial practices, officials say: compensating those who serve in Israeli prisons, including violent attacks.

This policy, which critics call “pay to kill”, has long been denounced by Israel and its supporters as an incentive for terrorism, as it guarantees potential attackers that their addicts will be well cared for. And because the payments are largely based on the length of the prison sentence, critics say the most heinous crimes are the most rewarding.

In bilateral criticism of the system, Congress has repeatedly passed legislation to reduce aid to Palestinians by the amount of these payments. The payments were quoted by the Trump administration as it cut funding and took other punitive measures against the Palestinians, starting in 2018.

Now, however, Palestinian officials wishing to restart Biden’s incoming administration – and have these sanctions lifted – are heeding the advice of sympathetic Democrats, who have repeatedly warned that without endless payments, it would be impossible for the new administration to heavy lifting on their behalf.

The proposal proposed in Ramallah will give the families of Palestinian prisoners scholarships based on their financial needs, instead of how long they are behind bars, said Qadri Abu Bakr, chairman of the Palestinian Authority’s Prisoners’ Commission.

“Economic need must serve as a basis,” Mr Abu Bakr said in a telephone interview. A single man should not earn the same as someone with a family.

The plan, which has not been made public, is just the latest in a series of actions the Palestinians are taking to try to restart their international relations. On Tuesday, they agreed to large-scale diplomatic pressure and resumed co-operation with Israel on security and civilian issues after a six-month boycott. And on Wednesday, they said they had returned their emissaries to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after summoning them in protest of the countries’ normalization agreements with Israel.

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

It is not yet clear whether the separation of payments from crime will satisfy the system’s strongest critics if any payments to prisoners continue.

But the proposal is almost certain to provoke intense opposition from many Palestinians, who have long revered prisoners as heroes and freedom fighters against half a century of military occupation.

Prisoner status may be the most emotional issue on the Palestinian streets: One of the largest protest movements in the West Bank in recent years has been in support of prisoners who went on hunger strike in 2017. In May, when some Palestinian banks complied with an Israeli military order banning them from distributing payments to prisoners’ families, gunmen opened fire on several bank branches.

Palestinians have been paying Israeli prisoners for decades, defending them as critical compensation for an unjust military justice system and needed to provide income for families who have lost their primary dependents.

Under the current system, the Palestinian Authority pays larger stipends to prisoners who have spent more time in prison without paying much attention to the economic well-being of their families. For example, someone who has spent 35 years in prison can earn thousands of dollars a month; someone in prison for four years can get hundreds.

Ashraf al-Ajrami, a former minister for prisoners, said he fully expected the public to “react angrily” to the proposed changes. But he acknowledged that the Palestinian Authority was eager to change the system because of the diplomatic sacrifices it had made.

Asked about the plan, relatives of prisoners expressed distrust and disgust.

“This is 100 percent unacceptable and shameful,” said Qassam Barghouti, the son of Marwan Barghouti, who has been convicted by Israel on five counts of murder and is serving multiple life sentences.

“Prisoners are not a social security problem,” he added. “People get paid more for spending more time in prison to admit their victims: The more time you spend behind bars, the greater your value to your society.”

Officials said they also plan to require released prisoners to work in the public sector. Many ex-prisoners are currently paid monthly pensions for inaction, Mr Abu Bakr said.

“We should not distribute salaries to people because they do nothing,” he said, noting that his commission had already distributed questionnaires to former prisoners about their job preferences. “They have to work for them.”

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

The details will matter. Israelis, who have been taking advantage of the payments for years, said they would have to be convinced that the changes were more than cosmetic.

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

And some critics say the payments to prisoners’ families are too high.

“The terrorist must know that when he participates in terrorism, his family will not receive money from the Palestinian Authority because he has been imprisoned in Israel,” said Avi Dichter, an Likud MP.

Since the beginning of last year, Israel has been pressuring Palestinians to suspend payments by withholding some of the more than $ 100 million it collects in taxes every month on their behalf.

Talks aimed at getting the Palestinians to end the system were urgent about two months ago, several people involved said. Nikolai Mladenov, a United Nations envoy to the Middle East, along with diplomats from Norway and Germany, were described as a tool to put pressure on the Palestinians.

As Biden’s victory began to look more likely, think tanks in Washington staged numerous talks to increase with Palestinian officials, in which Democrats explained why it was vital to suspend the payment system if the Palestinians hoped to get the president elected. Trump moves the administration – such as the resumption of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, which Mr. Trump had closed.

Mr Biden and his deputy, Kamala Harris, have promised to restore at least some aid and reopen the diplomatic mission.

But from a practical point of view, the participants told the Palestinians that the Biden administration – with a small bandwidth for the Middle East and needs a husband for every part of its political capital – would not be able to do much for them unless ” pay for murder was removed. An act of Congress requires the system to be reformed before much of the aid can be recovered.

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, a former aide to Prime Minister Shimon Peres and a longtime advocate for a two-state solution, said Palestinian leaders were easily persuaded. But all that remained was to come up with a formula that would satisfy control on both sides of the conflict, and then figure out how to “put a bulletproof vest around it” to withstand the Palestinian’s expected angry response in public.

Like others concerned about public discontent, Mr Novik questioned the wisdom of the public debate on the proposal now.

“The way to sell it is if it’s offered in a package,” Mr Novik said, in exchange for a concrete move by the upcoming Biden administration. “It is now isolated as a down payment for goodwill. Once it becomes public, the price will be paid. “

Lara Jakes contributed with reports from Washington.


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