Why you should care
Because a long ignored facet of the Arab-Israeli War is finally being addressed.
Taylor Force, an American war veteran and West Point graduate, was visiting the ancient port of Jaffa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on March 8, 2016, when 22-year-old Palestinian Bashar Massalha came running toward him with a knife. By the end of Massalha’s stabbing spree, 28-year-old Force was dead and 11 others were wounded.
Attacks like the one on Force are painfully routine in the bloody, six-decade-old Arab-Israeli conflict. But his death and its implications for his murderer’s family have sparked a debate that is making multiple countries contemplate steps to limit funding for the Palestinian Authority unless it distances itself from terrorism.
For half a century, the Palestinian government has maintained a so-called martyrs’ fund reserved for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and for families of those killed either while perpetrating terror attacks or in clashes with Israeli forces. When Massalha was shot dead by Israeli soldiers, his family became eligible for support from the fund.
It’s an abhorrent practice and it should stop.
Dan Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel
But U.S. legislation called the Taylor Force Act, currently in the House of Representatives, now seeks to place a condition on American aid to the Palestinian Authority on a commitment to end support for terrorism. Israel’s Knesset is mulling a law to deduct the amount the PA provides to so-called martyrs and their families from the money that Israel transfers to the authority. In September 2016, Germany said it would review its funding to Palestine amid concerns that its money was aiding terrorism. A month later, the U.K. froze $30 million in aid for the same reason. In May 2017, Norway demanded a return of funding, and Belgium froze funds in October after it discovered Palestinian plans to use the money for projects named after a revered female terrorist.
“In the last two years of the Obama Administration, we began reducing aid to the PA based on the estimate of what they were paying to terrorists,” says Dan Shapiro, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011–2017. “Now that it’s even more fully understood, there’s a very legitimate effort underway, most importantly to get the Palestinians to stop that practice. It’s an abhorrent practice and it should stop.”
The martyrs’ fund was created by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1967, and current president Mahmoud Abbas has criticized the moves to curtail it, calling payments from the pool “social responsibility to look after innocent people affected by the incarceration or killing of their loved ones.” But research by Yossi Kuperwasser, director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, paints a more complex picture.
Since 2013, the PA has paid over $1 billion “to terrorists and their family members” and it funneled $300 million toward the martyrs’ fund just in 2016, his findings — confirmed independently by the Associated Press — suggest. His analysis of Palestinian budget documents also found that the funding allocated to welfare support for impoverished Palestinians is far lower than that provided to martyrs and their families. This, he says, glorifies terrorism and nudges poor Palestinian youth toward violence: Palestinians serving three to five years receive $570 a month, while those serving sentences 30 years or more receive more than $3,400 a month — 20 times the average income in the West Bank. Additionally, prisoners serving multiple life terms are rewarded up to $25,000 upon their release and given a government position, says Kuperwasser.
According to Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, nearly 150,000 Palestinians across Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon receive payments from the martyrs’ fund. This includes Palestinian prisoners and family members of those killed either during clashes with Israeli forces or — like Massalha — while perpetrating an attack, he says. “As long as they died with any connection to the fight against the Israeli occupation, those martyrs are glorified and have the utmost respect of the Palestinian people,” says Abusada, whose own cousin was killed in the 2009 Gaza war. The cousin’s wife and eight children now receive payments from the PA.
The fund doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and many nations across the world continue to view Israel’s incursions into territories beyond the U.N.’s 1948 mandate for the region as an “occupation.” Tony Klug, a special adviser on the Middle East for the Oxford Research Group, argues that the occupation — Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories — and the “everyday humiliations” Palestinians suffer can’t be ignored while debating an end to violence. “Occupations, like others forms of colonial rule, are always resisted sooner or later, sometimes violently, sometimes nonviolently,” says Klug. “This might be one of the few cast-iron laws of history.”
U.S. lawmakers will need to “strike the right balance between ending incentives for terrorism, yet also not being punitive to the Palestinian people,” cautions David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If the Taylor Force Act comes into force, the U.S. is expected to whittle its aid to the PA down to a quarter of the current amount of $400 million.
But the pressure on the PA is more intense than ever.
At the time of Force’s murder, then vice president Joe Biden was less than 1 mile away, in a meeting with the late Israeli president Shimon Peres. He later criticized the portrayal of Massalha as a martyr. Dalal Mughrabi — who, along with other Fatah members, hijacked an Israeli bus in 1978, killing 38 civilians including 13 children and injuring over 70 others — has long been valorized in Palestinian history. But the PA’s use of Norwegian funds for a women’s center named after Mughrabi made Oslo demand a return of its money earlier this year. Belgium froze funding for the Palestinian education system in October when it discovered some of the money would be used for a school named after Mughrabi.
For years, cutting the martyrs’ fund wasn’t a priority even for Israeli diplomats, suggests Michael Oren, an American-Israeli lawmaker who served as Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2009–2013. He’s still not sure why. But Force’s “tragic death” has changed the global response, he adds. “That guy stabbed the wrong person, and that’s what woke people up,” says Oren. “It should have happened years ago.”