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Palestinian officials outraged at US demands to cut prisoner compensation program

June 23, 2017 10:59 P.M. (Updated: June 24, 2017 6:13 P.M.)
Palestinian prisoners walk in the yard of Israel's Megiddo prison in November 2005. (AFP/Menahem Kahana, File)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Following a meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and senior advisor to US President Donald Trump on Thursday in Ramallah, Palestinian officials have expressed their indignation over repeated demands from American officials that the Palestinian Authority (PA) cut its prisoners compensation program as a prerequisite to resuming peace talks with Israel.

The Times of Israel reported Friday that Abbas was left “enraged” following his meeting with Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, real estate developer Jared Kushner, who he has tasked with bringing peace to the decades long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

According to the Times of Israel, US officials “watered down” their demands about payments to prisoners, which originally called for all payments to be halted altogether.

The new demands reportedly requested that the PA stop paying compensation to the families of some 600 Palestinian prisoners serving life sentences and who are responsible for the deaths of Israelis.

Abbas reportedly defended the payments as a “social responsibility,” and said Israel was using the issue as a pretext to avoid peace talks, while Israeli news website Ynet reported that American officials described the payments “as a means of inciting terror.”

The payment program, managed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), provides financial allowances to Palestinians imprisoned in Israel and their families, those injured by Israeli forces, and families of Palestinian "martyrs" -- those killed by Israeli forces, whether during attacks against Israelis or in situations in which they were void of wrongdoing.

Israel collects an estimated $2.1 billion in taxes each year on behalf of the PA, according to a 2015 report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), representing three quarters of the PA’s revenue.

Israel has regularly withheld transferring taxes to apply pressure on the Palestinian government, despite rights groups saying such punitive measure amounts to “collective punishment.”

PLO Secretary General Dr. Saeb Erekat released a statement following the meeting between Abbas and Kushner, saying “we totally reject the Israeli allegations about Palestinian official incitement.”

Erekat accused Israel of “inventing new excuses,” and trying to “deviate attention” with claims like incitement, “every time there is a chance for peace.”

“Unlike the Israeli government, we are a leadership committed to the two-state solution and the full implementation of international law,” Erekat said, highlighting that “Israel has constantly refused to activate the trilateral committee on incitement (Palestine-Israel-United States) given that incitement and glorification of terror have been a longstanding policy by this (Israeli) extremist government.”

“We call upon the Israeli government to stop trying to find excuses to perpetuate its illegal colonial settlement occupation and systematic denial of Palestinian rights. Instead, it should work to fully end its 50-year military occupation towards achieving a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine,” the statement concluded.

Head of the Palestinian Committee of Prisoners Affairs Issa Qaraqe published an op-ed in Arabic media Friday condemning the demands to cut the program, citing the Israeli parliament, Knesset, decision earlier this month to advance a bill which would see the Israeli government cease to transfer an estimated 1 billion shekels ($280 million) per year to the PA over the compensation program.

Qaraqe called the bill “more horrifying and immoral than war itself,” saying “Israel is attempting to skin and punish the Palestinian people alive and cloak penal legislations designed to crush the Palestinian people under the veil of law.”

Qaraqe accused Israeli, American and European leaders of trying to “blackmail” the PA, saying the aim of cutting the program is not financial, but rather “an attempt to classify the entire Palestinian national cause as terrorism and crime.”

“Israel is committing a crime against the families of the detainees, the martyrs, and the wounded. It still wants to appear pure, innocent, clean and clean of our blood, suffering, and constant catastrophes caused by the Israeli occupation,” Qaraqe said, adding that it is the responsibility of the PA to provide social security to the affected families, which Qaraqe said was a right enshrined in international law.

Qaraqe said the true goal of the Knesset bill was to ”create a compliant Palestinian society,” and that “it aims to deform the values and principles of the Palestinian and his or her national concerns to ensure their full and permanent adherence to the occupation.”

“Israel can hold our money under power and piracy, but it cannot hold back our human and national dignity, nor can it change our identity from freedom fighters to despicable undignified subordinates.”

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