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Opinion If Palestinians are serious about peace, ‘martyr’ violence should not pay

A Palestinian protester kicks a burning tire during clashes in 2015 with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank city of Hebron. (Abed Al Hashlamoun/European Pressphoto Agency)
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David Makovsky and Ghaith al-Omari are senior fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Makovsky was a former senior adviser to the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Al-Omari was an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team and then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Lia Weiner is a senior at Yale University.

President Trump has shown interest in trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terming it “the ultimate deal” and recently sending his peace envoy, Jason Greenblatt, on a first visit to the region. Any progress on this front, however, must first address the lack of trust that exists between the two sides.

Israeli settlement construction undermines the Palestinians’ trust, as they believe that it slowly but surely erodes the geographical possibility of the Palestinian state. For the Israelis, the Palestinian incitement to violence casts serious doubt as to whether the Palestinians are serious about peace.

Without implying any moral equivalence, the two sets of practices nevertheless have parallels: Both erode trust on the other side, yet addressing each would require politically difficult steps from the leaders.

Much has been written about settlements, including by the authors. For their part, the Palestinians need to address the issue of incitement.

Actual terrorism has decreased, thanks in no small part to Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, with crucial support from the United States. Security cooperation, however, has not been accompanied by a narrative shift. Palestinian Authority official pronouncements still refer to Palestinians who murder Israelis as “martyrs” — a term introduced decades ago in the national context, where all acts against Israel, including violent acts, were considered by Palestinians as legitimate forms of resistance.

The egregious practice of making payments to families of Palestinians who engage in clear acts of terrorism and to prisoners convicted of such acts stands out severely in this regard. Every year, the Palestinian Authority spends more than $300 million, or 7.6 percent of its total budget, in support of two foundations dedicated to assisting families of “martyrs” and Palestinians detained in Israeli prisons.

The first of these funds, the Foundation for the Care of the Families of Martyrs, has an annual budget of $173 million and operates within the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Social Affairs. The foundation gives support to any individual “wounded, killed, or otherwise affected as a result of their joining the revolution or the presence of the revolution,” including civilian casualties from Israel Defense Forces operations. As of 2016, the foundation provides for approximately 35,100 families in the West Bank and Gaza.

The second program, devoted to assisting Palestinians in Israeli prisons, is enshrined in the 2004 Palestinian Law No. 14 on the Aid for Prisoners in Israeli Prisons. Since the law’s implementation, the Palestinian Authority has been sending monthly stipends to Palestinians in Israeli prisons. There is an entire official compensation apparatus that rewards prisoners who spent more time in Israeli prisons with official positions upon their release, including providing other forms of economic preferential treatment. For example, Palestinians who committed acts of violence punishable by sentences of 30 years in jail or more receive a monthly stipend of roughly $3,000, about four times the average monthly salary in the West Bank.

After persistent international pressure on the Palestinian Authority to cease the payments, including a U.S. law demanding a dollar-for-dollar reduction of aid sent to Palestinian prisoners, Mahmoud Abbas transferred the Ministry of Prisoners’ Affairs from the Palestinian Authority to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which Abbas also chairs. While these payments were zeroed out from the Palestinian Authority budget, Palestinian Authority budgetary reports last June state that $137.45 million was transferred to the PLO in support of the latter’s Program for the Protection of Prisoners and Their Families.

Palestinians argue that the bulk of these prisoners and “martyrs” are political prisoners and innocent bystanders. Israel vehemently denies that it arrests or detains people for their political views, but rather only does so for clear-cut involvement in the planning or execution of violent acts. But even by the Palestinian logic, there are clear-cut cases: A Palestinian who deliberately shoots, stabs or rams an Israeli with murderous intent cannot be considered a political prisoner by any stretch of that term.

As a first and immediate step, the Palestinian Authority must end payment in such clear-cut cases. Further audit would be needed to determine which cases would be entitled to receive special assistance if they — or any — were found to be nonviolent prisoners. Destitute family members can still receive regular assistance, as can any other Palestinians in need, but they should not receive preferential treatment in a way that rewards acts of terrorism.

Difficult as it may be politically, such a move is necessary in order to signal to the United States that the Palestinian side can make difficult decisions in the pursuit of peace. Focusing on this issue during the upcoming Trump-Abbas meeting could put the shaky U.S.-Palestinian relations on sounder footing with a new administration.

It is also necessary in order to begin rebuilding trust with Israel — just as Israel should be required to make its own difficult decisions to show seriousness and mend trust. Most important, however, it is necessary to make it clear to the Palestinian public that peace and terrorism are incompatible. For progress to happen, Palestinians and Israelis need to show commitment to peace not only by their words but also by taking action — even difficult action — that demonstrates their resolve to their own publics and to the other side.