For the third time in a row, the Palestinian Authority has returned the tax money that Israel collects on its behalf. At issue is the money that Israel is withholding equal to the amount that it estimates the Palestinians pay to the families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, which Israel designates as payments to terrorists.
The total refusal to accept the money with the reduction will quickly lead to the financial collapse of the PA. Despite this, Palestinian leaders are determined not to surrender to the unilateral Israeli decision to cease payments to the families of prisoners and those designated as “martyrs.”
The United States has also ceased all support for the PA, using support for terrorism as a reason to justify the end of American financial support to the Palestinians. The main difference between the actions of Israel and the US is that the money coming from Israel actually belongs to the Palestinians.
Based on the Paris Protocol – the economic agreement signed between Israel and the PLO in 1994 – Israel collects custom duties on behalf of the Palestinians and transfers VAT payments on goods that Palestinians purchase in Israel. Israel deducts 3% as a service charge for the collection and accounting, and the rest has been transferred to the Palestinian Ministry of Finance. This accounts for up to 60% of the Palestinian national budget.
This mechanism was established because in the Oslo “interim” agreement, Israel and the Palestinians did not negotiate or agree on permanent external borders for the Palestinians, leaving all of the external borders under Israeli control. This was meant to be for a period of five years, but has lasted 26 years. Israel has withheld Palestinian money several times in the past as pressure on the Palestinian Authority, but the Israeli attorney-general and the US government has ruled that it was not legal, and that it is in violation of the agreement signed between the parties.
THE GAPS between Israeli political positions and Palestinian positions have become deeper and deeper in recent years. The maximum that each side is willing to give the other is far from the minimum that each side is willing to accept. Israeli and Palestinian narratives reflect opposing positions on almost every issue.
On one issue in particular the gap seem totally unbridgeable, and are at the center of what could easily lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, with far-reaching negative consequences for both sides. This is the issue of Palestinian prisoners and support given to them and their families by the Palestinian Authority.
From Israel’s point of view, the Palestinian policy is “paying for slaying” in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a direct and orchestrated policy of encouraging terrorism. From the Palestinian point of view, the Palestinian prisoners and martyrs are heroes of the cause for Palestinian freedom and liberation from the Israeli occupation. It is quite easy to find very emotional and rational mutually negating positions from virtually everyone on both sides.
There are about 5,600 Palestinians in Israeli prisons today serving time for what Israel calls security offenses. Of those, about 540 are serving life sentences. It can easily be assumed that those who are serving life sentences killed Israelis – civilians or soldiers.
From the total number of prisoners, about 500 are being held under “administrative detention,” meaning that they have not been accused with open evidence, have not been legally tried, and have not been convicted of anything. In most cases, administrative detainees are not brought to trial, because that would require exposing evidence and sources of evidence that could endanger those sources.
Of the 5,600 prisoners, about 215 of them are under the age of 18, and there are about 50 female prisoners as well. According to international and Palestinian data, more than a million Palestinians from the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza have spent time in Israeli prisons since 1967. More than 100,000 Palestinians have been held in administrative detention since then.
Palestinian websites, Facebook and Twitter feeds report every day how many Palestinians were arrested each night by Israeli forces, giving their names, their locations and their ages. The most important Palestinian radio stations have “call-in” programs throughout the week by family members who send messages to their loved ones inside Israeli prisons. The listening audience of these programs is huge. Every Palestinian family has at least one member who is or who has been in Israeli prisons. The issue of prisoners touches everyone.
PALESTINIAN PRISONERS are seen as freedom fighters by all Palestinians; they are proud of them. Being an ex-prisoner is a badge of honor and one that often is rewarded with jobs, enhancing the public record of anyone in Palestine who wants to advance politically. The Palestine Liberation Organization has supported the families of prisoners for many years – since way before Oslo in 1993.
The Palestinian public’s support for providing this financial aid is beyond reproach. This is viewed as the holy duty of society to those who pay the highest price for the Palestinian struggle. From the Palestinian perspective, these prisoners were soldiers who killed, got killed, or got sent to jail in the line of duty, even if part of what they did was unacceptable or unjustifiable – such as killing Israel civilians. Palestinians believe that there is no moral ground to incriminate a Palestinian who joins the struggle, even when he does the unacceptable.
This is, of course, something that almost every Israeli condemns and cannot accept or even understand. Netanyahu had to invest almost no energy to convince the Israeli public – and the American public – that Palestinian support to the families of convicted terrorists is a reprehensible policy that rewards and encourages terrorism.
I have had many conversations with Palestinians, politicians, civil servants, Palestinian security personnel and normal Palestinian civilians on this subject. While many have been able to see the moral flaws in paying families of those who killed innocent Israeli civilians, almost no one sees any problem with supporting those who killed Israeli soldiers. And all of them see this issue now in the context in the wider Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and no progress toward leading the Palestinian people to freedom and ending Israel’s occupation.
As such, no one believes that PA President Mahmoud Abbas should stop the policy – and even if there are wide and deep economic consequences such as the economic collapse of the Palestinian Authority, then so be it. This is a matter of conscience, cause and Palestinian honor.
Some people also juxtapose the issue to Israel’s failing to deal appropriately and justly with Israelis who kill Palestinians – most of them given a slap on the wrist and suspended sentences – going back to 1948 and throughout Israel’s history. On this issue, it is difficult to argue with them. But only on that issue.
The financial collapse of the Palestinian Authority will have far reaching consequences for everyone living between the River and the Sea. The issue of tax transfers seems currently deadlocked, but a solution needs to be found quickly before the collapse happens.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.