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Does the Palestinian Authority pay $350 million a year to ‘terrorists and their families’?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Palestinians pay $350 million a year to terrorists. But that's a very fuzzy number. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

“Raise your hands high if you agree with me that [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas should stop paying terrorists to murder Jews. You know how much he pays? He pays about $350 million a year to terrorists and their families. Each year. That’s about a little less than 10 percent of the total Palestinian budget. That’s an incredible number, he pays Hakim Awad, the terrorist who murdered this beautiful family of Ehud and Ruth Fogel and their three children and a 3-month-old baby girl, he pays Hakim Awad this murderer. Over the lifetime of this killer he will be receiving $2 million. I have a message for President Abbas. Stop paying terrorists! Because what message does this send to Palestinian children? It says murder Jews and get rich!”
— Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, March 6, 2018

For several weeks, The Fact Checker has examined Israeli claims that the Palestinian Authority pays “$350 million a year to terrorists and their families,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in a recent speech in Washington. The Israeli estimate has helped fuel a push in Congress to pass a bill, known as the Taylor Force Act, that would end U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority unless the practice is ended. Force was a U.S. military veteran killed in 2016 in a stabbing attack that also injured 10 others in the city of Jaffa, near Tel Aviv.

The State Department, by law, already deducts from its Palestinian aid budget a figure that represents the amount of money the Palestinian Authority pays to people convicted of terrorism. The exact number is classified in part because of how the data used to estimate the figure was collected and in part because U.S. officials have little confidence in the estimates. But the amount of money withheld by the State Department is significantly smaller than the figures used by Israel, perhaps more than two-thirds smaller.

In fact, the Israeli government does not even have its own official estimate. The government instead relies on research done by Yossi Kuperwasser, a former director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry (appointed by Netanyahu) who now works as a scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. We’ve reviewed the documents used by Kuperwasser, examined others that emerged in a lawsuit against the Palestine Liberation Organization and also studied pages of documentation provided by the PLO.

Upon close examination, one can understand why the secret State Department figure is not as high as the Israeli claim. But an exact figure is elusive.

The Facts

A big problem is definitional. Netanyahu refers to “terrorists and their families.” In the Palestinian Authority’s budget, one can find $350 million in annual payments to Palestinian prisoners, “martyrs” and injured, but can one with certainty say they are all terrorists?

An Israeli prison pamphlet from 2007 says that 70 percent of Palestinian security prisoners were “sentenced for offenses that involve blood on their hands,” meaning they killed Israelis.

But Palestinian officials say clear-cut cases of murder are an even smaller proportion because most of the arrests take place in the West Bank, not Israel, and most Palestinians suspected of killing Israelis are killed on sight. (The Palestinian who stabbed Force was allegedly shot and killed by a police volunteer even though a video indicates he was wounded and no longer posed a danger.) Palestinians say the payments are intended to balance an unfair system imposed by an occupying power. The payments include $10 million a year in allowances to Palestinians to buy food, clothing and other items in the prison shop (“canteen”) that pays royalties to the Israeli prison system.

Yet at the same time, Palestinians acknowledge making payments to the families of suicide bombers and people convicted of heinous attacks. Hakim Awad — the then-18-year-old militant mentioned by Netanyahu who murdered five family members in a West Bank settlement — receives about $14,000 a year. But because payments increase with the length of incarceration, Awad would be paid more than $1.9 million if he lived to 80, the male life expectancy in Israel.

The World Bank said in a 2007 report that the martyrs fund did “not seem justified from a welfare or fiscal perspective,” that the prisoners fund was “the most generous PA program” and that the combined programs benefited a relatively small number of families. At the time, the payments amounted to 1.3 percent of gross domestic product of the West Bank and Gaza, but they have grown to 2.5 percent of GDP while providing benefits to just 1 to 2 percent of the population.

The Fact Checker also discovered that about 700 Palestinian members of the security forces in Israeli prisons are paid under a separate system — continued salaries, with regular promotions — that is buried in the Palestinian Authority security budget. (If the salary lags behind the prison payment, prisoners receive the balance from the prison fund, the PLO says.) That is at least another $10 million a year in payments to prisoners that eluded researchers such as Kuperwasser.

There is no standard definition for terrorism in the U.S. government, a problem State Department officials encountered when they sought to penalize the PA. Indeed, Palestinians may be jailed by Israel as security threats for acts that some — or many — Americans might consider civil disobedience.

As the cliche goes, one man’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Menachem Begin was head of a Jewish militant group, the Irgun, that was responsible for the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel that killed 91 people. The British, who controlled the Palestine mandate at the time, to this day call it a terrorist attack; the Irgun viewed the hotel, the local headquarters of the British army, as a military target. Begin later won the Nobel Peace Prize when he was Israeli prime minister. Just a decade ago, an Israeli plaque marking the “resistance” to British rule sparked a diplomatic row.

From the Palestinian perspective, many of the people held by Israel are “prisoners of war.” The payments, in fact, date to the early 1960s, when the PLO was founded as a revolutionary movement to reclaim what is now the state of Israel. Prisoner releases were a key part of many of the early agreements reached between the two sides after the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo accords in 1993.

As of March 2018, Israeli prisons held 6,050 security inmates, virtually all Palestinians, according to the human rights group Hamoked: 3,612 sentenced prisoners, 2,011 awaiting trial and 427 “administrative detainees.” Administrative detainees can be held without charge for up to six months for security reasons, which can be renewed indefinitely; they may not even be told of the evidence against them. One detainee, Mazen Natshed, has spent 12 years in administrative detention since 1994.

Palestinians suspected of security violations, even juveniles, are prosecuted by military courts run by Israel in its role as an occupying power. “Israeli civil law provides safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention, but key safeguards do not apply to Palestinian security detainees,” the State Department said in its most recent human rights report. “Israeli military law subjects Palestinian security detainees to its jurisdiction, which permits eight days’ detention prior to appearing before a military court. There is no requirement that a detainee have access to a lawyer until after interrogation, a process that may last weeks.”

Moreover, “Israeli law defines security offenses to include any offense committed under circumstances that might raise a suspicion of harm to Israel’s security and which the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] believes may link to terrorist activity,” the State Department says.

Palestinians say the system is subject to abuses.

“A usual case is one of a Palestinian found in possession of a knife being charged with attempted murder without any real evidence to indicate that he or she actually used or intended to use the weapon to kill,” said Sahar Francis, director of Addammer, an organization that assists Palestinian prisoners. “In the case of children, stone-throwing is the most common act defined as a crime against the security of the State of Israel. Children can be sentenced to months in prison for throwing stones.”

Sorting out competing claims is almost impossible. A famous case involves the “Hares boys,” five Palestinian teenagers accused in 2013 of throwing stones at a vehicle driven by a resident of an Israeli settlement on the West Bank. She lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a truck, severely injuring her 3-year-old toddler, who later died. Israeli troops in the middle of the night rounded up five teenagers, who signed confessions and were sentenced to 15 years. Palestinians say that the teenagers were tortured and that there are no eyewitnesses, but in Israel, the case led to higher sentences for stone-throwing.

Defense for Children International — Palestine, a nongovernmental institution, says Israeli prison data shows that an average of 200 Palestinian children a month are in custody, with three-quarters of those interviewed saying they endured physical violence. As of Dec. 31, 352 children were in Israeli military detention, according to Military Court Watch, which is cited by the State Department. The group said 94 percent of Palestinian children arrested by the IDF during the year were hand-tied, 78 percent blindfolded, 65 percent subjected to physical abuse, and 81 percent denied access to a lawyer before questioning.

The Palestinians thus say the prison payments are an effort to rebalance a deeply unfair system under occupation, with the military court considered a conveyor belt for convictions. The State Department, in its human rights report, noted that Israeli forces in 2016 killed 91 Palestinians, “some of whom were attempting or allegedly attempting to attack Israelis.” But violence by settlers against Palestinians “rarely led to indictments.” Since 2000, Israel has also made it more difficult for Palestinians to pursue lawsuits and receive compensation from Israel for injuries or death.

Meanwhile, the PLO says martyr payments go not only to people who were killed or injured by Israeli forces but also to victims of other events, such as a fiery 2012 bus accident that killed seven children and a teacher. Under a new payment system, families of martyrs receive a minimum of $350 a month, with smaller payments for people who are injured.

Yet even if one accepts Palestinian complaints about due process, there is little doubt that the system allows people to be rewarded for what many Americans would call terrorism; Human Rights Watch labeled the suicide bombings as “war crimes.” Israeli government officials point to interrogations that they say show the payments are considered an inducement. “The important thing is that I will die and they will kill me, so that my children will receive a [PA] allowance and live happily,” one would-be terrorist reportedly said.

Ali Ja’ara worked for the police department for six years and came from a family long involved in Palestinian militias. Documents obtained in a lawsuit against the PLO show that he was promoted and continued to receive a salary after he blew himself up in a 2004 suicide attack that killed 11 people and wounded dozens. Payments continue to the family of the suicide bomber who killed 15 people, including four Americans, at a Sbarro cafe in Jerusalem in 2002, and to the bomb maker, other documents show.

A fascinating 2010 dissertation by Palestinian professor Bassam Banat, done in cooperation with the PLO, counted 200 suicide bombers during the second intifada between Sept. 28, 2000, and Jan. 30, 2009, resulting in 1,676 Israeli deaths. It included interviews with many families, which found a majority (71.5 percent) of the families of Palestinian suicide bombers support “martyrdom operations against the Israeli occupation.”

Here are the numbers on the payments, according to data received from the PLO and PA budget documents. (We did not include administrative expenses.)

About 13,000 Palestinian men and women are beneficiaries of the prisoner payments, which totaled about $160 million in 2017, or an average $12,307 per person. (The PA funds also include after-prison aid, such as unemployment assistance and educational scholarships.)

About 33,700 families (19,700 in the Palestinian territories) shared in about $183 million in martyr payments, or $5,430 per family. (Note: Payments for families in the Palestinian diaspora are about double the level for families inside.)

The State Department, in determining the reduction in Palestinian aid, considers whether a detainee was convicted of a terrorist act that killed people.

One can broadly assume that anyone serving a life sentence — currently 526 prisoners, according to Addameer — was convicted of terrorism. Separately, 480 are serving sentences above 20 years. Even if one assumes that all are receiving payments at the 25-year imprisonment rate, that adds up to $36 million. Add the extra $10 million going to former members of the security forces, not in the prison budget, and it’s about $50 million.

It’s even harder to untangle the martyr payments, given that it covers such a range of possibilities beyond suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism. The families of the 200 suicide bombers share in about $1 million; the families of the Palestinians with life terms, lengthy sentences and in the security forces would receive another $10 million.

One can certainly come up with other metrics and definitions to adjust these figures upward, to above $100 million or higher. But it is hard to use a broad brush and claim all $350 million goes to reward terrorism. Thousands of families receive “martyr” payments related to injuries.

Itai Bar-Dov, a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, said the government considers all payments to prisoners to be for acts of terrorism. “The PA only pays those who have been convicted in an Israeli court for causing or attempting to cause harm against Israelis,” he said. He acknowledged, however, that the martyr payments are more complex. “There are also payments to families of Palestinians who were killed (shuhada),” he said. “In this case, we don’t deem everyone to be terrorists, and that of course depends on the circumstances of their death.”

The Pinocchio Test

Both the Israel government and the Palestinian Authority have data that could clear up these numbers. But it appears to be in the interest of both sides to keep the picture fuzzy.

Israel prefers to use broad numbers, labeling every Palestinian in custody as a terrorist, to avoid a spotlight on its detention practices. The Palestinians do not want to single out clear-cut cases of terrorism, no matter how horrific, when even their loved ones celebrate such acts as necessary resistance to occupation.

In any case, Nethayahu goes too far to claim that all of the payments are related to terrorism. He would do better to stick to specifics, such as the horrific attack by Hakim Awad, or to reduce the size of the claimed payments to more clearly reflect the reality of how and why they are doled out. That might put pressure on the Palestinians to identify clear-cut cases of terrorism.

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The Palestinian Authority "pays about $350 million a year to terrorists and their families. Each year."
in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
Tuesday, March 6, 2018