Shortly after the Oslo accords were signed, the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat began providing educational benefits to convicted terrorists ostensibly in order to enable them to pursue peacetime professions. Over time, the rehabilitation program grew into a ministry in and of itself, and the services it provided expanded from employment education to monthly cash transfers (“salaries”) that positively correlated with the length of sentence (and, hence, severity of the attack on Israel). In 2004, the PA policy of sponsoring convicted terrorists was actually enshrined in law, and by 2010 the yearly salary for those serving 30-year sentences was nearly 20 times the average per capita income in the West Bank and the ministry’s budget surpassed $100 million. Ironically, what started out two decades ago under the pretense of a PA program to rehabilitate Palestinians convicted of violence against Israelis has become an incentive program for committing acts of terrorism.
Eventually, the international community caught wind of the PA ’s policy of sponsoring terrorists and pressured the leadership to end these practices that made donor countries unwitting accomplices. The PA responded by delegating the responsibility for prisoner payments to the PLO and simply transferring the funds to the PLO to dole out. Essentially, this was a cosmetic change that placated the PA ’s foreign donors because it created a degree of separation between Abbas’s government and the program.
So what are the consequences of allowing for the PA program to mobilize and militarize Palestinian society to continue? In terms of simple economics, the PA’s rewards for prisoners create financial incentives for impoverished Palestinians to take up arms. Offering monetary compensation for acts of terrorism is just another aspect of the PA’s multifaceted campaign to mobilize Palestinian society against Israel. This component complements other PA policies that endow with honor those who commit acts of terrorism by naming public spaces after them, extolling their virtues in public speeches, describing those who are killed while carrying out attacks as martyrs in PA -controlled media, providing stipends for their relatives (even when there are no dependents), and funding mourning tents for them.
Also, because all governments have finite resources, carrying out this policy means that the cash-strapped PA will be allocating its money to those sitting in prison cells for killing Israelis at the expense of services that actually benefit the population (hiring more teachers, sanitation workers, etc.).
Of course, this also has ramifications for the potential revival of peace talks. The PA claims it abandoned violent resistance, and it was recognized by Israel on that basis. What legitimacy does President Mahmoud Abbas have as a partner for peace so long as his government rewards violence? In fact, not only does the PA reward Palestinians for acts of terrorism, but it pays those with Israeli citizenship a premium for undertaking such actions – tantamount to sponsoring an insurrection inside of Israel as well. This completely undermines the PA ’s recognition of Israel in 1993.
No less important is the effect of the PA offering preference for governments jobs on the sole basis of having killed or tried to kill Israelis. First, giving positions of authority and influence in society to those guilty of violent acts against Israel clearly presents these figures as role models to the general population. Second, stacking the government with individuals who see violence as a solution to the conflict will likely steer government policy away from moderation and compromise. Third, this offers yet another reason to question the viability and character of a Palestinian state; its future government evaluates candidates for employment not on qualifications or competence but rather on the severity of crimes committed against Israel.
However, because Ramallah has shown determination to continue this policy by making the necessary institutional adjustments to “hide” it in the face of growing criticism, Israel requires an approach capable of convincing Abbas’s government that the economic punishment it endures for supporting convicted terrorists outweighs any benefits that it reaps from doing so. One possibility, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered (but has yet to carry out), is for Israel to calculate the amount of funding diverted to terrorists and subtract that amount from the taxes it collects on the PA ’s behalf. In effect, Israel would force the PA to pay twice over if it opted to continue with its current policy. Another option is to establish an international coalition of foreign donors that institute and enforce guidelines to prevent the misuse of foreign aid. The UK has already done so, and Israel would likely find willing partners in the enraged officials from the US, Germany, and Australia who have indicated a strong desire to bring an end to the misuse of their taxpayers’ money for rewarding terrorism.
Likewise, President Donald Trump, who has expressed disdain for foreign aid, disgust at Islamic terrorism and staunch support of Israel will likely come out in favor of cutting off US taxpayer support to the PA so long as it maintains its policy of paying salaries to terrorists. Yet, economic threats cannot guarantee to end the practice if the PA is willing to endure the economic punishment, because Israel does not have the ability to directly interfere with funds funneled from the PA to the PLO and into Palestinian bank accounts.
When crafting a response to this deeply troubling PA policy, Israeli decision makers must take into account the possibility that their actions could have the secondary consequence of pushing an already unpopular government in Ramallah to fall. For example, it is possible that the PA , when faced with growing external pressure to which it is unwilling to concede, will disband of its own accord. Two other possible scenarios in which Israeli actions bring about the end of the PA are more along the lines of state failure: either the PA refuses to change its practices and the economic punishment it endures causes its patronage system to collapse, or it accedes to outside demands and abandons the terrorists it crowned as national heroes, thereby provoking a popular insurrection.
However, Israel should not refrain from acting against these policies simply because doing so entails risks. Firstly, a failure to respond to PA support for terrorists due to fear of institutional collapse sends the message that Israel seeks to keep the PA alive at any cost – that there will not be serious consequences for the PA ’s dangerous policies. If that is what Israel signals through its silence, it can only expect the PA ’s behavior to get worse. Second, in the past the PA ’s threats to fold proved empty, and there is no credible indication that the organization will voluntarily give up its hold on power (especially considering Abbas’s recent efforts to consolidate power). Third, if the PA were to collapse in response to Israeli pressure, which is far from certain, the consequences would be significant though manageable.
Like any other government in the world, protecting its citizens is the State of Israel’s primary obligation; therefore, it has a moral imperative to do everything in its power to bring an end to the PA policy of financially incentivizing the murder of Israelis. Pressuring the PA to end its “murder for hire” policy is accompanied by political and security risks, but moral rectitude often entails facing dangers. In this case, coercing the PA to spend its budget on providing actual services to its people rather than diverting funds to imprisoned terrorists may have the silver lining of causing it to build more effective institutions and broaden public support.