BETHLEHEM, West Bank — The Aida refugee camp is a warren of alleys, a scene of frequent clashes between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers — and a welfare ministate.
A plaque at the entrance lists the names of 36 residents killed by Israelis whom the Palestinians call “martyrs” and the Israelis call “terrorists.”
Activists at Aida say that among the 5,500 residents at the camp are 500 Palestinians who are currently serving time in Israeli prisons or have been released.
Many of these prisoners, in jail and out, receive monthly payments from Palestinian authorities, while the families of those killed or severely injured by Israel get a stipend.
The Palestinians call these payments “salaries” or “social welfare benefits.” The Israelis call them “blood money,” designed not to help widows and orphans, but to incite Palestinians into attacking Jews.
Palestinian authorities have been paying prisoners for years, but the issue is now front and center as Israel presses President Trump to demand that Palestinians end the practice.
As the president prepared last week for his first foreign trip aboard, which will include two days in Israel and the West Bank this week, Israel’s right-wing government and its supporters in Congress pressed the Trump administration to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority unless the payments stop.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech earlier this month, addressed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, asking, “How can you speak about peace with Israel and at the same time pay murderers who spill the blood of innocent Israelis?”
“Fund peace, not murder,” Netanyahu said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
It doesn’t matter to the Palestinians if their martyr was an innocent child mistakenly shot by an Israeli sniper during a demonstration or an assailant driving the family car into a group of civilians at a bus stop.
“Almost every household in this camp has someone getting a payment, martyrs and prisoners. There’s not a family that has not been touched,” said Mohammad al-Azza, an activist and journalist here, who was shot in the face by a rubber bullet and was almost blinded while filming a violent demonstration in 2013.
Saud Kharag and his wife, Saadiya, live in Aida camp, which today is a neighborhood of Bethlehem, filled with two- and three-story cement-block homes.
The Kharags have had four sons in Israeli jails. Two are still behind bars; one was deported to Gaza.
Their eldest is Mohammad, 32, who is serving a 17-year sentence, the family said, for shooting at Israeli forces during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
His “salary” is almost 3,000 shekels a month, about $800.
The money goes to support his parents and his siblings, his father said.
“You think he did this for money?” he asked. “Do you think I’d want my son in jail for years for pennies?”
Kharag said the Israeli assertion that Palestinians are paid to attack Israel is false.
“They will do it for free,” he said.
“End our occupation and we will stop fighting it,” he said.
He pointed at a visiting reporter and said, “The Americans give the Israelis $3 billion a year [in military aid] to maintain the occupation. Why don’t you stop paying?”
This argument is nonsense, the Israelis say.
Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, called on the United States, Europe and others to cut the Palestinians off.
“Aid provided by the donor countries to the Palestinian Authority every year ends up funding terrorists who murdered innocent Israelis,” he said in a statement.
Palestinian assailants sentenced to 30 years in Israeli jail get $3,000 a month, Danon said.
The families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces get about $800 or $1,000 a month, officials say. Tens of thousands of individuals and families receive the money.
“Put simply, this is official Palestinian blood money, rewarding terrorists who kill Jews,” Danon said.
U.S. diplomats have quietly pressed the Palestinians to stop the payments, but during the Obama administration, U.S. officials kept the issue below the radar. To pacify donors, the Palestinian Authority also transferred responsibility for making the payments to the Palestine Liberation Organization.
State Department spokesmen said that the United States reduced the $400 million in aid the Palestinian Authority had received annually because of its salaries to prisoners and others, but told The Washington Post that the exact amount deducted is “classified.”
They did not explain why it is classified.
In his White House meeting with Abbas earlier this month, Trump did not mention the payments in his public remarks.
But White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters later, “The president raised concerns about payments to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails who have committed acts of terror and to their families and emphasized a need to resolve this issue.”
Yossi Kuperwasser, a former top intelligence officer and Israeli army general, who now works as a scholar at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said the Palestinian government allocates $300 million a year for these payments, which is about 7 percent of the annual budget and more than 20 percent of the annual foreign aid given to the government by all donors.
This is not a trivial number, Kuperwasser said. “This is a big, big number.”
Kuperwasser said that it’s common-sensical that stopping payments to Palestinians who attack Israelis would reduce terror assaults.
“This is solicitude in advance,” he said. “This a promise to pay.”
Palestinian leaders have rejected calls to end the payments, arguing that those jailed are “freedom fighters” or “political prisoners,” worthy of support.
Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, told Israel Radio that those who expect Palestinians to cut off salaries to prisoners must be “mad.”
Shaath said Netanyahu’s advisers told then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry in 2014 that they understood that to deny the payments would strangle the Palestinian Authority and spark chaos in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s office denied this, Haaretz reported.
“The prisoners are victims of Israel and the result of the occupation,” Shaath said.
Jibril Rajoub, a senior Palestinian leader, told The Washington Post last week that Abbas explained to Trump that it was “a very complex situation.”
Rajoub said, “If we didn’t pay, someone else would pay.”
Asked who would pay, Rajoub said it would be Iran or Hamas.
Hamas is an Islamist militant movement, a powerful Palestinian political party and bitter rival with Abbas. The United States and Israel have branded it a terrorist organization.
Rajoub said millions of dollars from the United States flow into Israel to build Jewish settlements that the international community considers illegal — although Israel disputes this.
One of those donors to the settlement enterprise is the new U.S. ambassador to Israel, David M. Friedman, who arrived last week.
Rajoub said that if there was peace and a Palestinian state, “we can close this file. . . . We can say from now on, he who will commit these acts has no support from either side.”
The call to cut off payments to prisoners comes as hundreds of them, led by Marwan Barghouti, are carrying out a hunger strike that has reached day 35. Barghouti was sentenced to multiple life terms by an Israeli court for the murder of Israeli civilians.
Sufian Taha contributed to this report.